Tandi Kuwana is an award-winning mental health clinical facilitator at Curtin University and founding director of Mental Wellness Keys, a consultancy organisation in Perth.
She runs mental health awareness programs for migrants through her organisation and in collaboration with other charity organisations in Western Australia.
This year she was inducted into the Western Australia Women’s Hall of Fame and in 2019, she received the Organisation of African Communitys’ Community Champion Award. Tandi talks to us about what drives her passion for social justice and advocacy for safe mental health services Down Under.
Tell us a little about your life in Zimbabwe, childhood memories and your childhood hobbies.
I grew up in Chitungwiza as the only girl in the family. Playing with my brothers toughened me but I enjoyed it. I read numerous books which made me dream, especially about the woman I wanted to be.
As a child, I wanted to be a lawyer, but my mother had other ideas. She wanted me to be a nurse. The work that I do now advocating for those from marginalised societies stems from wanting to be a lawyer and fighting inequalities in health at a policy level.
What do you miss about Zimbabwe?
I was raised by my mum after my father died. We used to eat mbambaira – sweet potato – for breakfast. We ate a lot of brown sadza, mahewu, roasted peanuts and rice with peanut butter. I miss that food.
I also miss my extended family, more so for my children. It would be so good for them to know their extended family and more about our heritage.
How did you end up in Australia?
I trained as a mental health nurse in the UK. For 2 years, I had an Australian coin in my purse before I decided to migrate to Australia with my family.
How did you handle the cultural shift when you came to Australia?
When I moved to England from Zimbabwe, I was young and I had to learn and adapt quickly. When I came to Australia it was different. I’d just had my son, so started thinking about the food that I ate, the quality of education that I wanted for my kids, and so on. Wherever I worked, my main concern was the lack of diversity at the executive level. I wanted to see people like me.
Then I started thinking about the mental health issues in our community. Most people were not willing to discuss the subject saying mental illness does not affect us Africans. The reality was and is that mental illness does not discriminate because 1 in any 4 people are diagnosed with a mental illness at some stage in their life.
Tell us a bit about your career as a mental health nurse, how the journey started and where you are now.
I started as a nursing assistant in the UK, became curious about the meanings of psychiatric terminology then studied mental health nursing. Then I moved to Australia.
Following a workplace injury that threatened my career I volunteered to conduct mental health literacy sessions when I realised there really was a gap in knowledge about mental illness in people from culturally diverse communities. In my eyes, mental health services struggled to serve these communities, so I started working with service providers assisting them with making their policies inclusive.
I now sit on state and federal advisory boards advocating for change in policy and making sure that the needs of culturally diverse communities are reflected in these policies – from recruitment to service provision. I would love my children to view mental illness differently and know there is strength in seeking help.
The Zimbabwean community in Western Australia is…
… Independent. By this I mean we tend to deal with problems as a community. We tend to fend for ourselves and not rely on welfare or government services. Whilst this is good, I see community members sometimes not fully utilising Australian mainstream services.
At one point, we had several suicides in the community and we tried to deal with this issue independently with no help from suicide prevention specialists. Another African community I worked with had the same issue, sought help from the government and received the support they required. I think we have to work on how we deal with shame. Shame deters us from seeking help.
To a young migrant in Australia right now, you would say….
Try to become part of your community and interact with people from diverse backgrounds. That’s how you learn, develop and expand your network. Identify resources at your disposal.
Have the courage to ask. If you’re looking for a job, there are workshops that teach people how to prepare resumes, write cover letters and prepare for interviews. Ask for help from the people who are doing what you aspire to do. Knock on their doors and don’t give up. Someone will see your potential and help you. Ask to be mentored by the best. Follow your heart. If you want to pursue a certain career, just go for it. Just because it’s not been done before by someone you know doesn’t mean you can’t do it.
What inspired your passion for mental health and charity work?
So, after that injury at work, I needed surgery and there was a real risk that I would not be able to return to work. As I recuperated, I was diagnosed with depression. It was an arduous time for me and my family. I was trying to be strong but being strong was not working. The internal conflict trying to make sense of mental illness and my cultural and religious beliefs confused me to say the least and left me hopeless at times.
I learnt that helping someone else when you are feeling low makes you feel better, so I started volunteering and that helped lift my mood. One does not volunteer because they have spare time, but you must create time to be of service to others.
I became comfortable talking about being depressed and recovering because I didn’t want anyone else to experience the internal conflict I experienced. By sharing my story, I wanted people to start having conversations about this taboo subject. I simply had to be that person for the community and for my children.
What are two of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as an emerging leader and how did you handle those challenges?
Being turned down so many times. When that happens, I don’t focus on finding someone or something to blame but look inward. Then I seek feedback from people I trust like my mentors who also keep me accountable. I’ve realised that the doors that have been shut have led to my growth. We must crawl before we walk or run.
I also started practising gratitude daily by writing down three things that I’m grateful for. When doors are shut, I replay the three things I’m grateful for and that helps me deal with disappointments and keep going.
The second challenge is managing time. I spend time alone. Not long ago, I travelled to Rome by myself. That gave me the time to reflect and re-energise. You can only look after others well if you’re looking after yourself.
What are your tips for survival and resilience in these testing times?
We come from a collective community and this influences how we seek help. When things go wrong, we tend to gravitate towards what we know best based on our culture. Our understanding of resilience is different from the academic definition. To some it means being prayerful, going to church and solving your problems alone. In dealing with situations at an individual level, some will suffer in silence and not access services that can help.
The thing is being resilient entails being able to use all the resources available to us as well as our culture, tradition and religion. As immigrant communities, we should be more open to learning different ways of dealing with issues from our host country, just as the host country can learn from us.
You have several awards and accolades to your name. What are your ingredients for success?
Have a dream and visualise who you want to be. Then work hard to achieve that dream. What I know is that sometimes we just need to focus on the skills we fall short on and that make us less competitive. It’s important to have mentors who can help us navigate our goals when we get stuck. It’s also important to be a lifelong learner.
A critical piece of advice for a young person aspiring to impactful leadership is…
Leadership is about seeing the potential in others and helping them reach that potential. I see it as being of service to others, as shining the light on others. Impactful work requires us to remember that if you change one person’s life you change many. It’s a ripple effect. Leadership is about lending a helping hand to someone and walking with them as they find
How do you juggle family, work, advocacy and your charity?
You can create time to help others. This is contrary to what I was taught when I was young – that you volunteer when you have spare time. I look after myself and ensure I get time to myself so that I can be of real service to my family and others.
How did you feel after being named as a 2020 Western Australia’s Women’s Hall of Fame Community Inductee?
When I received the nomination email, I opened it, read it and wondered whether I was dreaming, but didn’t respond. About ten days later a lady called me asking whether I was accepting the nomination. That’s when it sank in. I always thought of inductees into the Hall of Fame as women who had done more than I had done. I guess I didn’t realise how important the work I did was and how much it was needed until then. I hope my story helps keep the conversations about mental illness going in my community and encourage others to seek help.
Would you consider running for political office?
Funny you ask that question! When I was awarded the Organisation of African Community Champion Award, I was asked that same question. I see myself thriving not as a politician but as an advisor to the government of Australia on multicultural mental health.
What’s next for you?
I want to keep influencing mental health policy-making in Australia and hopefully help reshape the future of mental health services in Zimbabwe.
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