Niharika Hiremath: “Have fun”

“Have fun.” — This is the piece of advice that I get the most eye rolls for. “How can we have fun when we’re trying to solve the world’s problems?”. But actually, life is real short. It is very possible to (work toward) solving the world’s problems whilst chilling out once in a while. Relax, you are ok. […]

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“Have fun.” — This is the piece of advice that I get the most eye rolls for. “How can we have fun when we’re trying to solve the world’s problems?”. But actually, life is real short. It is very possible to (work toward) solving the world’s problems whilst chilling out once in a while. Relax, you are ok.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Niharika Hiremath.

Niharika is a lived-experience mental health advocate and Master of Social Work candidate from Melbourne, Australia. She focuses on migrant and refugee mental well-being, through exploring culture and identity and their overlap with mental health. She specifically looks to support multicultural mental health advocates and professionals through a capacity-building, support network in order to push for individual, societal and systemic change in the mental health space.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

Absolutely! I was lucky enough to be born and raised for the first few years in a small town, in the south of India, called Hospet. Our home was only 10 minutes from a gorgeous UNESCO listed world heritage site, Hampi, a magical archaeological site with old stone temples and a rich history. I used to live with my grandparents while my parents worked in another city — often I would only see them once a month. I missed them a lot but it meant I was able to spend time and become close with my grandparents — who still reside there. 😊

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I read ‘Essentialism — The Disciplined Pursuit of Less’ by Greg McKeown for the first time when I was 21. It resonated strongly because I felt like I had always pursued 13 different things at any given time — it helped me evaluate why I was spreading myself so thin just to be burnt out, exhausted and overwhelmed all the time. More so than anything else, it was the first time I started to understand why doing a few things well instead of very many things poorly would be more useful in working towards the change I wanted to make. That’s not to say it’s been cruisy since then — but it set a precedent that has been hard to forget.

How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

My definition of ‘Making a difference’ has changed a lot throughout the years — but it’s fairly simple now (I like to think haha). I think that making a difference means taking the time to understand a challenge, a problem or barrier and finding ways to address it in a meaningful way. This isn’t just systemically — this can be as simple as recognizing that someone is going through a rough time and holding space for them to talk about it without judging or giving unsolicited advice. It is not reserved for huge impact or recognition of your service; it is in whatever way you can contribute and the intention and compassion to do so.

Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

For sure — Diversity of Experience looks to support folks who are working, volunteering, and advocating in the multicultural mental health space (specifically within Australia, at the moment). It is a capacity-building support network that looks to address barriers for those who are trying to increase awareness and reduce stigma around mental wellbeing in culturally diverse communities!

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

Well, like many social entrepreneurs — this was a problem that I faced (and still face) myself. After having had a lived experience of mental health issues, I started volunteering for my local youth mental health organisation that I had attended myself as a client. This led to exploring avenues of work or a career in the field; but I consistently found a lack of cultural representation in many of the spaces I looked to work or make change in. This, of course, also spoke to a larger and more systemic issue around cultural communities’ and their conceptualization of mental wellbeing — but it was my personal experience that opened the door into what would become my passion and an area that I now see myself working in for many, many years to come.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I don’t know if there was a single, defining ‘Aha Moment’ for me — but there were a few realizations that really helped guide me. One of these was that, often, the walls that we build around our experiences are largely self-constructed. I acknowledge that this is absolutely speaking from a level of privilege — but still. As soon as I was able to drop the pre-conceived notions of what I could or could not do — it was easier for me to take risks. These days, millennials talk about having the ‘audacity’ — this idea really resonates with me because honestly, stepping up and just doing it was not a monumental action or something amazing that I did. I just had the audacity to speak up in — and advocate for — ideas and change that I felt deserved a space and a voice. And when you speak up enough — people start to listen.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

To be honest — I don’t know if I did (know the steps to take)! But I learnt along the way — and there were a few things that helped me get started. Firstly, being clear on the problem I was addressing was key. I started off looking at mental health broadly, then found that I had an interest around mental health in multicultural communities. What really allowed me to delve in was identifying what specific gaps I could look to address — and for me, that was in supporting the bicultural mental health workforce that was already doing such incredible work. Also — look for others doing similar work and work together! Ensuring that your intention is to address the problem on hand means that, then, you will look for any and all opportunities to collaborate, strengthen and build together — rather than in silos.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Absolutely. In the starting phases of the network, I had the opportunity to attend an international youth mental health conference in Queensland, Australia. I was especially taken by one of the keynote speakers — an incredible Indian woman and advocate from Canada (born in Chennai, India) — that spoke strongly to the considerations around cultural and indigenous psychology when thinking about youth mental health. I managed to steal her for a dinner when she was in Melbourne the following week — and after 2 hours of in-depth, inspiring conversation and sharing her learnings from 20+ years in the field — she made a comment that floored me. She said “Niharika, can you believe that my (Indian) husband still doesn’t understand what I do for a living?”. For me, this spoke so strongly to the need for a system that earnestly supports folks who are advocating for change in the multicultural mental health space. Even after so many years of work (and so much deep and systemic change that she had inspired), to not be able to have your family understand the already deeply, emotionally demanding work that you do was difficult to hear. And her experience — along with mine — is not unique by any means. That is why we are doing what we are doing.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

The only reason I have been able to do what I have is because of my mentors and my cheerleaders!!! Learning from those around you — and especially those who have navigated these spaces and coming out roaring — is absolutely one of the biggest life hacks when it comes to social impact work. To this day, I am not afraid to cold message someone on LinkedIn asking to get a coffee and learn from them. My first mentor in the mental health space was someone I came across when I was reading about mental health apps in earlier years. He was about to finish his PhD, focusing on the review of a CBT-based app he had created, and he just happened to be doing this in the same university I was in at the time. I found him on LinkedIn and sent him a long message about what I had been working on — and whether I might be able to pick his brain about his work. He got back to me within the week asking when I would be free for a chat! I still remember — I showed up to our meeting dressed almost in a suit because I was so nervous — and he rocked up with flip-flops and Ray-bans! We had what was my first eye-opening and incredibly insightful conversation around innovation in mental health. You’d be surprised about how wonderfully helpful people can be; you just have to ask. The worst thing that can happen is that they say no — then you find someone else!

Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I think the one that sticks with me the most is a beautiful South-Asian woman that I have had the opportunity to work alongside over the years. She was initially referred to me by a mutual friend, as she had just finished her counselling degree and was looking to increase her work experience in the mental health field. We were able to help her join our local mental health service youth reference group — and that was just the start of the story. In the years since, she went on to become a powerful voice in the youth mental health space in our state — leading a lot of lived experience and grass roots change in our local communities. She now works interstate — having moved there for a job in the space — and we have grown to be wonderful friends. It just shows me what can happen when you clear the obstacles for powerhouses who already have the drive and the passion to make change!

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Only three? Haha just joking! But I would start with:

  1. Systemically support multicultural mental health advocates — If you’re working in a mental health organization and you see an incident where a person of color is directly or otherwise discriminated against — say something! These are already difficult spaces for many folks to navigate in the trauma that it can bring up — so supporting folks to be able to meaningfully contribute to the conversation; and change; is important.
  2. Financially support multicultural mental health advocates — Look to specifically fund or provide bursaries for initiatives and change-making vehicles led by (and for) multicultural communities. Recognise the often-disproportionate impact that being from a culturally diverse background can have (specifically in this space), and look to even the playing field where possible.
  3. Emotionally support multicultural mental health advocates — Working in the mental heath space is fulfilling, but it can also be emotionally exhausting. For multicultural mental health professionals and advocates, there is often a much lower level of mental health literacy in their personal lives and communities, and with the added impact of systemic issues such as discrimination, racism and prejudice in your everyday life this can take a serious psychological toll. If you feel safe to do so — hold space for the multicultural advocate to unpack and debrief if needed; in a non-judgmental and supportive way. Help navigate them to resources and affirm their concerns in acknowledgment of the added stressors they face in this work.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).

  1. Your ceilings are higher than you think.” — For too long, I believed that there was certain things I would never be able to do. Now some of these — Ie. become a basketballer (I’m 5 foot something) — fair enough. But many of these things were only ever ceilings that I (or someone I trusted) had set for myself. So just try. Looks hard? Try anyway. Not sure if you’ll succeed? You’ll never be able to, until you at least give it a go. Worst case; you fail — and then you learn, and you move forward so actually, it’s always a best case. Win, win! I can still attest that majority of my biggest achievements stemmed from simply showing up when others did not, identifying a problem and trying to solve it.
  2. “Your relationships will get you the furthest.” — Someone once said; “People won’t remember what you said or what you did — but they will remember how you made them feel.” This was a very wise person. Build trust, compassion and understanding with anyone you work with, for or lead. And be honest in your intentions. Last month, I was nominated for an award and until last week (the references were due this week) I completely forgot as I had been ill. I reached out to 4 trusted mentors in my network — and within 2 days I had lengthy letters from every single one, without any hesitation. Healthy relationships will be your biggest strength — respect and value them.
  3. “Do not try to give from an empty cup.” — Ok, so I think I butchered the saying, but essentially — this refers to the importance of health and wellbeing when doing the good work. People notice when you show up at 40% — and more than that, you burn out so much more quickly. I’ve already mentioned it — but Essentialism (the book) is a great place to start in identifying those important factors that will allow you to show up as your best self. “But Niharika, there isn’t enough time in the day!!!!”? This may be so — but Bill Gates once said “People overestimate how much they can do in a year, but underestimate how much they can do in 10.” Aim for sustainability and gradual growth in your change-making — so you can do it better and for longer!
  4. “Try not to reinvent the wheel.” — The best solutions to the toughest problems are often the simplest. I’ve spent a long time trying to find gaps and fill those gaps — but the solutions you come up with don’t have to be a brand new, nobody-has-ever-thought-of-this invention that will take you 6 months to produce. Once you have clarified the issue — what is the simplest way in which you can produce a solution? For me, it was putting together a toolkit using 3 different softwares on 3 websites that did the job of housing resources that people could access easily. It was NOT spending 12 months trying to design a brand-new website and spending a long time trying to get people to fund it. Quick tip: check your ego. What’s your intention?
  5. “Have fun.” — This is the piece of advice that I get the most eye rolls for. “How can we have fun when we’re trying to solve the world’s problems?”. But actually, life is real short. It is very possible to (work toward) solving the world’s problems whilst chilling out once in a while. Relax, you are ok. Your intentions are in the right place, and you’re trying to contribute positively to something bigger than yourself. That is more than enough. So take a day off and watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine all day (even if your friends find it annoying that you quote it every 5 minutes — oops), absolutely have that 3rd cupcake guilt free and go out dancing instead of finishing that article (also oops). You’re allowed. It’s your life, and you only get one of ’em — so you may as well have a good time.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

The drive to make a positive impact on the environment or the world usually comes from the inside. For me, it was my lived experience and identifying which of my skills were going to be able to contribute to what was needed in the world. It is also something that makes me happier than anything else I’ve ever worked on. Finding your ‘thing’ will change how you view the world. It’ll make getting up that much more interesting, inspiring, and absolutely incredible. So if its not enough that you will be contributing positively to the external environment (or society) — trust that seeking to make a positive impact will have just as much of a positive impact for you internally.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Aiko Bethea — She’s a diversity, equity and inclusion expert that I once heard on one of Brene Brown’s podcasts — and the way in which she navigates conversations about race and D&I work has me inspired! I also especially resonate with the importance of doing the work internally in organisations, and pushing for systemic change in that way — something that she talks about a lot and something that I would probably not stop questioning her about, for hours 😛

How can our readers follow you online?

This is our website:

& our Culture & Mental Health Toolkit:

And this is my LinkedIn page:

And what I am currently working on 😊 —

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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