Rabiah Dhaliwal – young and on a mission

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Rabiah Dhaliwal is an activist, mental health ambassador, former Miss British Columbia, Terry Fox National Scholar, and a 2020 L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth Honouree. Oh, and she’s not even 25 yet.

While most teenagers are enjoying the lack of responsibility that comes with youth, Dhaliwal was awarded the L’Oréal Paris Scholarship for her work as volunteer Vice President of the One Blood for Life Foundation, a non-profit organization that aims to increase the ethnic diversity of the National Stem Cell Registry. In this role, she led the recruitment of 1,410 stem-cell registrants and 3,350 blood donors.

The L’Oréal Paris scholarship prompted Dhaliwal to invest money in creating her own mental health organization, a passion project that stemmed from a dark personal experience.

A former beauty queen, Dhaliwal is proof that sometimes our outsides don’t necessarily match our insides. In grade 11, she struggled deeply with her mental health. Her deteriorating mental state led to a suicide attempt, which left her in a coma and recovering in a teenage psychiatric ward.

This experience fueled her fire to dispel misconceptions about mental health and illness and shed light on these “invisible” health issues.

She is now the Founder and Director of the Voices for Hope Foundation, a non-profit that challenges mental health stigma through intersectional frameworks. She has spoken nationally at the House of Commons where she testified to introduce a Mental Health Parity Act.

At the heart of the organization, she is building a platform to amplify BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and Women of Colour) voices. This is particularly important because culturally sensitive representation and resources truly matter in the mental health space, something Dhaliwal wishes she saw when struggling with her own mental health battle.

HOW DID YOU DECIDE TO PURSUE THIS PATH (MENTAL HEALTH)? WHAT WAS A PIVOTAL MOMENT?

I spent more of my childhood staring at hospital walls than school hallways due to struggling with mental illness and brain injuries. Some may consider this to be a misfortune, but it was a pivotal moment that changed the lens through which I viewed and navigated life forever. I truly believe there is power in reclamation and I am proud of surviving and clawing my way through adversity in a world where it often felt like the cards may be stacked against me as a Punjabi-Sikh and neurodivergent woman. I’ve accomplished things that my 14-year-old self could not have fathomed in her wildest dreams during a time in which I couldn’t see a future for myself beyond the present day. Because of my experiences, I garnered a passion for mental health advocacy and awareness.

WHO IS A KEY MENTOR AND WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM THEM?

I didn’t grow up seeing a lot of women in positions of power, particularly women of colour, so the few that I did see and know all served as mentors and inspirations to me in their own ways through their respective fields, whether that be medicine, the arts, or politics. The commonality between all these women who inspired me was that no matter what they were pursuing, they all did so unapologetically despite many adversities along the way and were barrier-breakers.

WHAT IS ONE IMPORTANT THING CANADIAN WOMEN NEED, BUT WHICH THEY RARELY TALK ABOUT—AT LEAST IN PUBLIC?

The pandemic has had a gendered impact. There’s been an increase in gender-based violence in Canada and depression and anxiety is about twice as likely to present in women as compared to men. There is a lack of safe spaces for women to express their experiences and mental health needs. Going forward, in a post-pandemic world, there needs to be women-centered mental healthcare in Canada, particularly care that is both culturally sensitive and informed towards the unique experiences of BlWOC (Black, Indigenous, and Women of Colour), trans women, and non-binary women. Canada is a diverse country, and it’s time that our healthcare system reflects this.

WHAT IS ONE BIG MISTAKE WOMEN TEND TO MAKE AND HOW COULD THEY AVOID IT?

Realizing their power and that their inherent worth is not connected to being somebody else’s version of acceptable. This is something I have struggled with personally, and it’s difficult to find personal fault in this, because it is society that often dictates that all women must fit a certain mold and live up to a certain standard in order to be deemed worthy. It is truly a life-long journey of unlearning this and relearning to step into your power and owning your truth.

WHAT IMPORTANT LEGACIES—GOOD OR BAD—DID YOU RECEIVE FROM YOUR MOTHER, YOUR GRANDMOTHER?

My grandmother and mother are both immigrants who came to Canada and sacrificed their own dreams in hope of a better life for their children. Today, because of them, I have the immense privilege and freedom of choosing my own path because of the groundwork they laid before me. Through their perseverance and sacrifice, I learned how to become the best version of myself.

WHAT IS YOUR POWER WORD?

My power words are “purpose” and “community.”

Lately, I’ve been struggling with finding a sense of purpose and have been asking myself, what am I fighting for? And I came to realize that I’m not just fighting for myself, but I’m here to be a mirror for those who look like me, I am carrying my whole community with me. These two words serve as a daily reminder as to why I became a mental health activist for my community in the first place. Learning the stories of young women who say my story and advocacy efforts gave them courage to speak on their own experiences, gives me the strength and motivation to continue my work. The power of community is a sacred one to me, and it is my driving force.