While most people in their 20s are still grappling with career choices, Pritika Desai founded her organisation at 22, and at 26 has just had her name unveiled at the Australian National Maritime Museum’s Welcome Wall. Meet this remarkable Indian-born entrepreneur and mental health advocate from the Northern Territory, who feels every new job is her calling in life.
On Sunday, May 7, Pritika Desai was among the proud 364 names unveiled at the Australian National Maritime Museum’s Welcome Wall in Canberra. For Desai, 26, perhaps the youngest from an Indian-origin background, having her name on this prestigious wall puts to rest, in a way, her struggle around identity.
Born in Australia to Indian parents who migrated during the 1990s, Desai is a first generation Indian and admits to grappling with identity issues growing up. “When asked where I was from or to describe who I am, I was never quite sure how to proceed with an answer. What do I say? Which do I choose? But with age, I have come to appreciate this dilemma. I am many things, but I am one thing. I am Australian. You are Australian.” This is an abstract from Desai’s speech on Sunday. The Welcome Wall stands in honour of those who have come from overseas to live in Australia. There are currently over 28,000 names on the Welcome Wall.
Desai was chosen for her exemplary work in the field of mental health in the Northern Territory (NT). A victim of Borderline Personality Disorder, Desai started her own organisation called ShoutOut that deals with mental health issues in her bid to resolve her own issues as well. But within no time the organisation grew, the awards kept coming and today she is recognised for her contribution in the field of mental health. (More on that later).
Recalling her parents’ own journey to Australia, Desai says they arrived in 1990 with just 480 dollars in their pocket and her sister who was four years old then. A year later Desai was born. The first few years were spent chasing opportunities moving everywhere from Victoria to NSW to the beautiful Pacific island of Vanuatu. Finally, the family settled in the Northern Territory where Desai was raised.
“NT is actually very multicultural. We have massive indigenous population as well. But yes when we moved, we were part of the first Indian Cultural Society. Being in a small Indian society was beneficial to us because we instantly had family and friends when we moved there. It was the same when we lived in Vanuatu,” she recalls.
One striking point about her parents, who had backgrounds in hospitality, was their resilience, she notes. “They are quite adaptable. They just didn’t assume that if they were going to come here they will be successful straightaway. So that’s why we travelled so much and followed where the opportunities were. And they didn’t necessarily struggle as much as I have seen others (because I have worked in the migrant sector and have friends who are migrants). It seems there is a lot more struggle now especially in finding employment, having education recognised or getting education.”
Although her father got straight into the hospitality sector, her mother worked in a shoe factory for 18 months and then got into hospitality after that. From the packaging line of a factory her mother went on to become a public servant federal government, while her father rose to an executive chef to head of school at a top university.
Desai realised early on that Australia was a land of opportunities. However despite the cocoon of success that surrounded her family, as a child she was grappling with a real existential crisis, the question: where are you from? Who are you? She suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder that came with all its accompaniments such as anxiety and depression.
But it was only after she completed her university degree in Zoology from the University of Melbourne and Deakin that she addressed these issues in herself and others. The opportunity came when got back to the NT to work with the indigenous community across Australia in animal management as an educator. “So I was flying in and out of Darwin to remote communities to work on educational programs around animals.”
The exposure to these remote communities gave her the added opportunity to work on other avenues for four years. “These four years were not only about animal care but on education around different topics and my focus was particularly around sexual health, says Desai, adding, “I studied nothing relevant to what I am involved in now.”
Working with the community and the youth, Desai got a chance to enrol into a leadership program on ‘how to learn to develop your own projects’. Equipped with skills, Desai’s next initiative was to start ShoutOut, a mental health project made up of volunteers and participants who run events. The organisation has since grown by leaps and bounds.
“We started off running events, got young people talking about their issues and also promoting what support services were available. I guess one of the great things about Australia is that there are lots of opportunities like these, that’s why I could start ShoutOut that supported young people like myself who were having mental health issues. And I started becoming very public about my struggles.”
Desai recalls that her decision to go public with her issues was not received with equanimity especially among the small Indian community in NT. “Of course there was quite a varying opinion on whether that was right or wrong. So people were talking about it, a lot of aunties were talking about it,” she laughs. “But the positive feedback was from my young Indian friends and that motivated me despite the older generation thinking such things should remain within the four walls of the house. I think one day I just didn’t care anymore.”
The important thing was, her work ignited conversations and the hurdle of being taken seriously about a project started by a 22-year old was slowly overcome. But the beginning as always was tough. For the first event, Desai got just 20 participants and four young people who lived with mental health issues who dared to speak publicly for the first time. Last year, there were more than 250 people when ShoutOut organised a music festival in which one of the participants, a rape victim, spoke about the consequences of rape to her mental health. She later addressed about 400 high school students and young adults, in the process reaching out to a wider audience.
In four years, ShoutOut has become big. From an audience of 20 to 400, a modest finance of 500 dollars to 100,000 dollars; even the volunteers have increased. While earlier the challenge was the inability to leverage influence because they were such a young team, they are now being taken seriously. “As we started growing, we started getting some funding and the government recognised our work. Next, Members of Parliament started consulting with us because we had the connections to the community particularly young people. I think we have had a lot of influence,” she laughs.
But Desai’s biggest achievement is developing a mental health app which will offer mindfulness tools, the ability for young people to draw their mood to share with their peers, and information on nearby support resources or services. Funded by the NT government and Samsung, she hopes it will be completed by the end of the year. “It’s been two years in the making. We have had peak mental health organisations such as Suicide Prevention Australia and Black Dog involved.”
Right now ShoutOut is focussed in the NT. “That’s where we know what the needs are, that’s where our volunteers are but with the App we will be able to extend that throughout Australia.”
For all her work, Desai has had a prodigious recognition. Last year she bagged the Darwin Council’s Young Australian of the Year prize, at the Australia Day Awards (2016). She also took the India Australia Business Community Awards Young Community Achiever of the Year for her work with Indigenous Communities. And this year, her name has been unveiled at the Australian National Maritime Museum. Also now as an ambassador of the India Australia Business Community, she wants to use the platform to reach out to more Indian youths.
While ShoutOut remains her baby, Desai has been doing different things. After a stint with migrant community arts and cultural development programs in Sydney, she is back in mental health. In Sydney since last July, Desai is currently working with an organisation called Sector Connect where as a project officer she is developing a model for integrated health service which focusses on mental health. “That would be like a clinic with GPs, mental health services, NGOs, all working within one space and developing the model for a clinic, all working together to serve the client’s mental and physical health needs. My job is consulting with the community and the sector to design how that clinic is going to look like and how it is going to be managed.”
While grateful at the opportunities that Australia offers, Desai says she feels she has found her calling every time she gets a new job. Perhaps it speaks volumes about her passion to making a change and being the change herself.
Finally on the question of identity, Desai still manages a laugh when asked ‘where are you from?’ “I think I find it funny now rather than ‘why are they asking that?’ I am a lot more comfortable with myself, my intricacies and quirks. I don’t see identity as being one thing. You don’t have to sit in one box.”
By Indira Laisram