It’s the start of 2022. Asami Koike is working as the founder of a community centred around Asian Australian mental health. She types the following into Google Search:
entrepreneur mental health bad
“I remember feeling so bad and miserable. It got to this stage where I picked up my phone and typed in ‘entrepreneur mental health bad’. It’s interesting to talk about because I’m a mental health clinician, I’m a therapist, and I support people to take care of their mental health all the time. I was also riddled with the shame of thinking “I’m a mental health clinician, I should know how to manage myself, but I feel so awful."
I’ve worked in mental health and wellbeing for a good 17 years, but running a startup and being a founder is new to me as a human being. What I often like to share with my clients, which I had forgotten to tell myself, is that when things change - like you go through a dramatic shift or something happens - your coping mechanisms also have to change; it’s like your old self-care strategies need to level up to match whatever it is that has changed in your life."
Asami didn't intend on being a founder. Rather, Shapes and Sounds unfolded - much like how we can only connect the dots looking back.
"I was a registered music therapist at a crisis service for young people experiencing homelessness in Victoria. I was part of the mental health team, and it was there I had a very eye opening experience within our public mental health sector. I started to notice early on that kids who were Asian would slip through the cracks or disengage from the service. Or I've noticed them not getting the same attention and care as other young people.
And every time I would bring this up to management, like “have you noticed this what's going on with the Asian kids?”, the answer I would always get back was “okay, let's get more interpreters in and let's translate our documents”. At the time I didn't have the language for this, but in my head I was like, “I feel all these young people speak English and many of whom were actually born in Australia, it's not a language issue that we're talking about.”
That got me thinking about the cultural nuances that are going on in mental health. As I looked into the stats, Asians make up 16% of Australia's population - which is a huge cohort - but out of people seeking mental health services, only 2 - 3% of those are Asian. So there's a huge discrepancy. And if you're going to acute and men crisis services, you're looking at about 8 - 10% who are Asian, which is more representative of the total population.
So then I was like, “Oh my God, there's a huge gap. Asians aren't immune to mental health problems, in fact, many of us are just struggling in silence.” So I had all of this playing in the back of my mind, but then what happened was we went through an awful period at that organization where we lost so many young people to suicide. And I just couldn't do it, and I burnt out, and I left that organization.
I left in a state, probably feeling quite angry about everything I'd seen as well about those cultural nuances that were missed that allow young people to slip through the cracks. So I took that anger and channeled it into writing into the universe and the internet.
And luckily for me, it caught the attention of many people and it started a life of its own. I was just writing and sharing photos on Instagram and then Vi-An came along. She has a management consultancy background, so she really helped to create structure and organization to the vision."
It’s fair to say Asami is an expert in mental health, and apparently there’s two main steps (for Asami) to caring for it.
"The first step is insight - so self-reflection and and having the curiosity to look inwards. And also courage, because it takes a lot of courage to question like “Oh, why do I think this way?”, “Why do I want this?”, “Why do I do things in this way?”. So that kind of internal questioning is crucial to how people manage their mental health. Or with myself as an example, “what am I not quite coping with?”, “what can I change and what can I shift?”.
So being attuned to yourself, which could be your thoughts and feelings, but also your body and sensory experience - like “How does my body feel?”, “Do I feel safe?”, “Do I feel unsafe?”, “What's my intuition saying”, that kind of stuff. Looking inwards is crucial.
The second part of the equation is about bringing language to your experience. That means being able to write about something or organize your thoughts enough so you can communicate your experiences to another human being, because when you are able to communicate your experiences, that's the tool in which you are able to socially connect with other people. If you can talk about your experiences, you are offering yourself the opportunity to be validated in your experiences to be seen and heard for who you are and what you've gone through.
And this part about bringing language is really hard for many people. You can have a lot of experiences and reflect upon them, but can you coherently put them into some kind of sentence as a way of connecting with another human being?
In our community, that's really what we work on. We have all these questions to help people to think about what they're doing and what's going on for them. But we encourage people to put that into coherent sentences so that they can feel a sense of social connection to others, because that's really the key to your mental health."
What this brought to mind was a line by Clare Bowditch in her book ‘Your Own Kind of Girl’.
"What seems obvious to me is that so-called illness and so-called strength are somehow related, are women fine, in the same way love and grief are woven fine, in the same way sunshine and storms are woven fine. We need to keep striving to invent better, clearer language through which to have this conversation, and I believe we will, and I want people like you, and me, to be part of that development."
Being a woman and person of colour, Asami has faced unique challenges as a founder
"There are times when you really have to just go get it and be aggressive to follow up emails and calls, but it’s seen as low brow to be hustling in Japanese culture. It’s really hard for me to overcome as there’s so much cultural weight attached to that.
Something like 0.2% of women of colour founders gain VC funding. That's a wildly small number. So systematically you're set up to fail as well, and that's really hard to wake up to every single morning. You're only one human that can only motivate you so far and push you and be like “yeah, let's go and seize the day - every single day.” There's only a limited amount of energy you have to do that.
But it's really important to highlight that while yes - systemically things might be a bit toxic, there are ways in which you can manage and take care of yourself.
You could think: there are challenges and systemic barriers, but at the same time, what are the actions I can take - big or small - that lead to my experiences of success? Things aren't binary - as in it's either “the system is toxic and I'm gonna fail”, or “i can overcome anything and I can do anything.” There's so much in that in-between, of acknowledging the systemic barriers and that we have a lot of agency.
A tangible strategy for me has been connecting with founders and people in the space who I look up to and who I see myself within. Sometimes I feel like the more you talk about systematic barriers, the more helpless you feel. It’s like “oh well, I’ll never make it, I’ll give up”. And maybe that’s true, but isn’t it much nicer to live through life with a sense of hope? The world dramatically shifts all the time - so the statistic of the 0.2% that are backed by VCs might dramatically change.
It’s important to not go through life blindly. Understand the sociopolitical climate, but within that it’s important to hold onto that hope and joy and to remember your own agency."
And how exactly can we hold onto that hope?
"Resting helps me to reconnect back with what I want to do, what brings me joy, the vision of Shapes and Sounds… Have you heard that phrase: “If you don't rest your body, there'll come a time when your body forces you to”? I'm really one of those people. So recently I had COVID and that was a forced rest. It was like, we are done here, close your computer.
That gave me the space for the nervous system to calm down a little, to be able to look inwards and be like, “Oh, what am I doing?”, “What's going on here?”, and “Am I doing what I wanna do?” Then you recalibrate a little bit once you've got your strength back and be like “This has to change in my life”, so you come back a little bit stronger.
So sometimes I operate in that. I get forced rest from my body which then offers me the time and space to connect back to myself. But what I'm now actively trying to do again is rest before my body forces me to rest. And I heard this wild thing - I don't know how true it is - but apparently in terms of your brain, if you were working for one hour, 10 minutes needs to be a space for doing nothing for your brain to just chill out.
And how often do we go from like a Zoom meeting to “I’ll check my emails and then I'll answer this and then I'll do this and then blah, blah, blah. Okay, next Zoom meeting.” So after we log off today, I will probably put a timer on for 10 minutes to just sit on my couch and do nothing. And it's very strange, but I feel much more energetic and calm."
When asked, “What are you most proud of yourself for in the past year?”
"You know what, we've built up Shapes and Sounds from me sitting in my bedroom, typing away into the internet to now a team of eight people.
We had our first in person catch up a few weeks ago and I remember sitting there being like, oh my god, this was just a little thought in my brain and now there are so many people that see that vision as well and are working towards the same goals that I am.
And for me, having a team is also big because, one, I'm an only child, and two, I'm just such a lone wolf. I just do everything alone. That's my favourite thing, being alone. So for me, I feel like something has changed within myself to be able to allow people into my life and to be able to collaborate and share and be okay with sharing.
So for me, definitely that team and having so much support from everyone and being able to communicate that vision to others has been a huge, huge deal for me."