vol. 5 Struggles

Credit: Poppy Jaman

02 / 02

Poppy Jaman OBE:
"I'm a citizen of the world that's got a lot of curiosity about the world."

Mother & Activist & Saree Enthusiast & (Wannabe) Dancer/Singer

A conversation about the power of sarees, creating your wellbeing toolkit, and singing over Zoom


Oct 28, 2021 | As told to Cherie Yang & edited by Mohsina Alam

Sarees and mental health were both big talking points in this chat with Poppy Jaman OBE, which went on for nearly 2 hours.

A proud saree enthusiast, Poppy is also a leader in the mental health world and community, and is currently CEO of City Mental Health Alliance, an organisation whose mission is to build mentally healthy workplaces. To Poppy, a saree is like a hug, and it also inadvertently became a key feature in a spontaneous social media campaign, Green Sarees for Mental Health.

Our conversation is wide-ranging and starts with us talking about her childhood and teenage years (“a struggle”), her forced marriage, and her subsequent depression diagnosis. We chat about the power of community: how that had saved her in ways back then, and how it still is a prominent feature in her life today.

Somewhere during our chat, Poppy makes a point emphatically, “I'm a 4’11’’ British-Bengali, little tiny brown woman.” Her mission is clear: she wants to be a role model for other women and show them what they can do through what she has done. We talk about not diminishing your achievements, and “being brave, not perfect.”

And as with every enjoyable conversation, we also had several good laughs: about her enormous saree collection (we’re talking hundreds); what it was like rediscovering a letter, 27 years later, that she had written to herself at age sixteen; and about her singing aspirations—a 10-year project, as she calls it!

Find Poppy on Twitter and Instagram. Learn more about City Mental Health Alliance.

All pictures courtesy of Poppy Jaman via her Instagram.

  • A very young Poppy and her dad. Credit: @poppyjaman via Instagram

  • &: Take us back to your childhood. Where did you grow up?

    PO:

    I came to this country at 18 months old and I grew up in Portsmouth in the 80s, so I do feel like a proper Pompey girl.

    It was lovely in the sense that there was a tiny community of British Bengali people back then so we were a very close community. There were 5, 6, 7 families and we all saw each other fairly regularly so that felt quite close.

  • I adapted my personality at school and I'd pretend that I was more English than I was Bengali, but of course, at home, I wasn’t.
  • It's all of these roles. And I think the splintering effect that then had on my personality—trying to be all of these different people that didn't necessarily interact with each other in a safe way—had a big impact on me.
  • &: If you had to describe your teenage years in one word, what would it be?

    PO:

    Struggle.

    I experienced challenges when I hit teenage years with starting school and hormones kicking off. You suddenly become very self aware as a young person that you’re not like everybody else and that your family culture and practices and things like that separate you out from the mainstream.

    I eat with my fingers and I love it, but I remember eating with cutlery in school—little things like that make you feel different. I found that personally quite difficult because I wanted to be part of the mainstream and be cool and fit in.

    I adapted my personality at school and I'd pretend that I was more English than I was Bengali, but of course, at home, I wasn’t.

    There were very strict rules about going out as a girl and socializing with boys and staying out late.

    I remember my friends used to say, “Oh, we get pocket money,” and we didn't have a culture of pocket money in our family.

    My friends would be attending after school clubs like netball and dance which I wanted to participate in, but I wasn’t allowed to stay after school.

    I found my teenage years very, very difficult, and I really felt isolated and alone quite often, because then when you looked into the community, there weren't lots of teenage girls who were similar to me.

    It was very difficult to find people that had a similar mindset and that I wanted to hang out with. I felt distorted. It’s like, I am Poppy but I'm also English and I'm also Bengali, but I also wanted to be a student, and I wanted to dance and I wanted to be a good sister and a good daughter.

    It's all of these roles. And I think the splintering effect that then had on my personality—trying to be all of these different people that didn't necessarily interact with each other in a safe way—had a big impact on me.

  • It was talked about in the family, but not in a positive way. I don't think my parents recognized that actually I needed support and help and conversation.
  • &: Were the struggles you faced in your teenage years talked about in your family?

    PO:

    It was talked about in the family, but not in a positive way. I don't think my parents recognized that actually I needed support and help and conversation.

    It was more like, you’re growing up and these are the rules that you have to live by. I was constantly reminded that I was Bengali and I mustn't veer away from my faith and my culture.

    I was told, “These are the clothes you must and mustn't wear, this is the hairstyle you must or mustn't have. This is the food that you must learn how to cook. This is how we treat elders.”

    There were a lot of rules and boundaries because I was a Bengali woman and I couldn’t lose face. I felt like I carried the responsibility for the face of my family.

  • I felt very frustrated and constantly torn between not wanting to disappoint my parents and compromising some of my dreams and hopes. It was a struggle, and I think it was a struggle for my mum and dad as well.
  • &: Was there anyone you felt like you could talk to?

    PO:

    At school, there were a couple of teachers. Mrs. Moore was one of them. I remember very clearly in secondary school she picked up on the fact that I was really struggling, and she helped me to find other Bengali girls in school who were older than me and we created a safe space so that I could talk.

    She spent time listening to me and tried to help me navigate some of the emotional struggles that I was having...

    I remember Mrs. Moore called my mum once and told her that I really wanted to do these dance classes and I was a really good dancer. She vouched for the fact that I was in a safe place and I wasn’t just bunking school. It reassured my mum that it was okay to let me stay after school.

    I felt very frustrated and constantly torn between not wanting to disappoint my parents and compromising some of my dreams and hopes. It was a struggle, and I think it was a struggle for my mum and dad as well.

    I don't think love was ever in question in terms of my family. But when you're a migrant family and you're trying to raise a family and you're trying to adjust it’s hard. And I really get that.

  • I was very ambitious as a teenager. I wanted to travel the world. I didn't actually want children; that was never part of my plan.
  • &: Wow. What did you do after finishing school?

    PO:

    I was very ambitious as a teenager. I wanted to travel the world. I didn't actually want children; that was never part of my plan.

    I wanted to travel and I wanted to go to university and I wanted to be something.

    I don't know what ‘being something’ meant back then, but I guess my frame of reference was the women in my family who didn't work. I wanted to have financial independence.

    But for that generation, I knew that for me to have that dream was really big. I never shared with my parents that I wanted to travel the world, but I did tell them I wanted to go to college and university.

  • All the rules that were put around me meant that I rebelled against it all and that rebellion meant that I ran away from home.
  • &: What did they say about that?

    PO:

    It was a big deal. My parents had thoughts like, “Wow Poppy wants to go, what does that look like? Will she be away from home? What restrictions do we need to put in place so that she doesn't have a boyfriend and go off the rails?”

    All the rules that were put around me meant that I rebelled against it all and that rebellion meant that I ran away from home.

    And when I ran away from home, the consequence of that was what I now recognize as a forced marriage.

  • Poppy and her daughters, Credit: @poppyjaman via Instagram

  • &: Can you tell me more about that?

    PO:

    I was taken back to Bangladesh and I got married. I was in that relationship for about seven or eight years. My first daughter was born from that relationship.

    She's now 25. She's amazing. She's travelled the world and she’s an anthropologist and works in Brighton. My youngest daughter is studying politics and international development at Leeds University.

    I had my first daughter when I was nineteen or twenty, and very soon afterwards I was diagnosed with postnatal depression.

    But I don't think it was postnatal depression; I think the hormone imbalance that you experience when you have a child probably amplified it, but actually my mental health struggles started in my teenage years.

    They only really came to the surface after I’d had a baby because I had so much medical attention at that point in time.

  • I just remember thinking, “I've got no idea what to do with this child.” I didn’t feel like a mother and I felt very separated from the baby and from myself.
  • &: What made you realise you were struggling with depression?

    PO:

    I remember sitting in the hospital and I'd just given birth and I had this amazing, beautiful thing in my arms.

    I just remember thinking, “I've got no idea what to do with this child.” I didn’t feel like a mother and I felt very separated from the baby and from myself.

    I knew then that something wasn’t right because I'd seen other friends and other women with their children at family get-togethers and I just didn't have that connection.

    It was my health visitor, a Chinese lady called Alison, who picked up on the fact that I was struggling.

    I didn't know what a mental health struggle was at the time.

  • I had what we now would recognize as distorted thinking, where I was thinking, “I'm not good enough. I'm not capable. I am a failure.” All of this negative distorted thinking were feeding the fact that I didn't believe that I should even be here, let alone be a mother.
  • &: Do you know what caused your mental health struggle?

    PO:

    I had what we now would recognize as distorted thinking, where I was thinking, “I'm not good enough. I'm not capable. I am a failure.”

    All of this negative distorted thinking were feeding the fact that I didn't believe that I should even be here, let alone be a mother.

    In terms of what caused it, I think there was some hormone element and biology to it, but actually, it was the social determinants.

    It was the things that happened around me. It was years of not feeling like I belonged and not being able to communicate my needs, and my hopes and dreams being shattered through getting married.

    I couldn’t travel and get an education because I didn't have a job. And I was reliant on my then-husband to fund and support my lifestyle.

    I was 20 and most of my friends were at university. I had a baby and I had responsibilities. It was overwhelming.

  • Maintaining friendship when you've got a mental health struggle, plus you've got a baby and an enormous amount of responsibility, is really hard.
  • &: Thank you for sharing that. When you had your first baby, were you still in close contact with your friends from school?

    PO:

    Yeah, I actually became extremely close with one of my friends who is another Bengali woman. We were already close but we became closer because she too had a baby and we were pregnant together.

    That was an enormous source of support. The distance between my white friends and I grew at that time because they were at university and they were partying and going out. I had a friend called Angenette whom I was really close to at school, but I didn't feel at that point that our lives were relatable anymore because we were on such different paths.

    I had another friend who is Asian, but she was living a more English westernized lifestyle, so she and I didn't really see each other much. We're all still friends now and it's quite interesting to see how we've maintained this 30-year friendship. When we get together, it's like nothing's changed.

    Maintaining friendship when you've got a mental health struggle, plus you've got a baby and an enormous amount of responsibility, is really hard.

    I then found that I formed new friendships usually with older women, because I was 20 with a baby and most people that I knew who had babies were women that were in their late twenties, early thirties.

  • Poppy and her daughters celebrating Eid. Credit: @poppyjaman via Instagram

  • &: What about your own family? How did they support you through becoming a new young mother?

    PO:

    I lived with my mum for the first three months of my daughter’s life and she was phenomenal with hands-on help and my aunties were brilliant.

    I'm the eldest daughter on my dad's side of the family, and the way it works in my culture is that aunties and uncles are also grandparents, so they were all becoming grandparents for the first time.

    That's the beauty of our communities, it literally is a community that raises a child and I really lent in on that.

    I had no idea what I was doing. Sometimes I look at my 20-year-old and I’m like, “At your age, I had a baby.”

    I mean, she's amazing, but common sense isn’t high on the radar. [laughs]

  • I found some of that quite difficult. On the one hand, my Britishness and what some of the health professionals were saying, what are the rights and wrongs. And then you had other people who understood motherhood from lots of different perspectives. And then my health visitor, allowing me to try and find my own way through this.
  • Poppy and her mum. Credit: @poppyjaman via Instagram

  • &: Were there others who played an important role during that time?

    PO:

    I mentioned that I had a health visitor who was Chinese. I think that was really important because the fact that my health visitor was of dual heritage herself meant she understood cultural nuances and the multicultural elements in our lives.

    When you become a mother, you get so many books and so much advice chucked at you, but in the UK, most of it is very much Western methodology.

    At the time I remember thinking, “My God, you know, I'm English and English people don't do this or that. Where do I want to fit in on this?”

    I found some of that quite difficult. On the one hand, my Britishness and what some of the health professionals were saying, what are the rights and wrongs. And then you had other people who understood motherhood from lots of different perspectives. And then my health visitor, allowing me to try and find my own way through this.

    Coming back to the post-natal depression, there was also the fear of not being able to cope, of passing my daughter to my mum more than I should have.

    I think now, “How can you expect to create a bond between mother and baby if you're not spending time with each other?”

    Having my mum was an extraordinary coping mechanism but I feel like it impacted my bond with my baby. She would respond better to my mum than me and that then became a problem because I believed I wasn’t good enough.

    In a weird way, that too became a bit of a self-perpetuating thing that fed my mental illness.

  • I remember coming into the clinic for that check-in and Alison looked at me and went, “Let's go to the back room.” She was like, “Are you all right?” And I just burst into tears and I said, “I'm not alright. I'm not coping and I don't think I can do this.”
  • &: Were you getting help for your mental health at this point?

    PO:

    Every couple of weeks, you had to go and see your health visitor. The baby would get weighed and you'd have a little check-in.

    I remember coming into the clinic for that check-in and Alison looked at me and went, “Let's go to the back room.” She was like, “Are you all right?” And I just burst into tears and I said, “I'm not alright. I'm not coping and I don't think I can do this.”

    She actually sat me in the back room and went and got a GP there and then. The GP saw me, and that was when I was diagnosed with postnatal depression. I was then referred to counseling and to a psychiatrist and then I was also given some antidepressants.

  • I had my first appointment in the psychiatric hospital, and I became really upset because then I was like, “Oh, actually, I'm mad.”
  • &: When you were given your diagnosis, what emotions did you experience?

    PO:

    I remember feeling relieved and then really upset. I initially felt understood.

    “Okay, there's a label for that. I'm not incapable and I'm not a failure. There’s a thing that's happening.”

    I didn't really know what talking therapy was at the time, so it was almost irrelevant that they had referred me to counseling because I was just like, “What is that?”

    But the fact that medication was prescribed meant that my mental health was tangible.

    From a cultural perspective, if you're being treated with medication, then it's a real thing that can be treated.

    But also from a cultural perspective, what is talking therapy? There was no framework to understand that back then.

    I had my first appointment in the psychiatric hospital, and I became really upset because then I was like, “Oh, actually, I'm mad.”

    And that comes with huge stigma and shame in my community.

  • I'd heard family members talk about other people that are mad. I started thinking, "Am I going to be a laughing stock in the community? Will people stop taking me seriously?"
  • &: Can you elaborate on that?

    PO:

    I'd heard family members talk about other people that are mad. I started thinking, "Am I going to be a laughing stock in the community? Will people stop taking me seriously?"

    "And more importantly, outside of what people may say or think, will I lose my ability to have agency?”

    That really scared me because back then, the narrative around mental health struggles and mental illness was that you would end up in an institute or you ended up as a second class citizen in your community.

    I remember family members saying, “Don't tell anybody that you've gone to see a psychiatrist.”

    There was shame and fear attached to the whole thing. It was confusing, but I knew it wasn't a good thing whichever way I looked at it.

  • The first time I saw the counselor, I ended up educating them about my culture and my family circumstances, in order for them to be able to create the right therapeutic environment.
  • I needed help with life stuff and coping skills. I needed connections and friendships and my own identity.
  • &: Contrasting that to today, you speak so openly about mental health. How did you become involved in campaigning for mental health awareness?

    PO:

    It wasn't a conscious decision, it wasn't like I thought, “This is my cause now because I've experienced discrimination or I've experienced struggle.” I'd love to say that there was a plan and I went for it but it really wasn't like that.

    While I was seeing a psychiatrist, taking medication and undergoing counselling, none of these things were actually helpful in my recovery. I still didn't understand what depression and anxiety were and whether I was going to recover.

    The first time I saw the counsellor, I ended up educating them about my culture and my family circumstances, in order for them to be able to create the right therapeutic environment.

    I was giving more than I was receiving in my therapeutic relationship so I stopped that.

    The medication was making me feel lethargic and the psychiatry was okay, but it really wasn't what I needed.

    I needed help with life stuff and coping skills. I needed connections and friendships and my own identity.

    And actually what I did was I got a part-time job which gave me an identity and financial security, which then gave me choices.

  • Even at eight months, she knew that I was distressed and she was consoling me. It was a really powerful moment. I remember just looking at her in that moment and thinking if I don't change, and if I don't actually advocate for myself, then I'm probably going to set a precedence.
  • &: Why did you get a part-time job?

    PO:

    I remember sitting in my council flat in Portsmouth; my daughter was eight months old.

    I was sitting on the floor and I was sobbing. I was having a low day and I wasn't sleeping very much. I was on benefits and I had nowhere to go.

    I didn't have purpose beyond motherhood. And I was failing at motherhood, my mental health struggles at their peak, and I remember my daughter coming towards me and holding her hand up and wiping my face.

    Even at eight months, she knew that I was distressed and she was consoling me. It was a really powerful moment. I remember just looking at her in that moment and thinking if I don't change, and if I don't actually advocate for myself, then I'm probably going to set a precedence that she too could end up in this position where, there is lack of equality, there is an arranged marriage.

    It was just an incredible moment and it fuelled me to go and get a job. And that’s what I did.

  • When we give, it actually makes us feel better and more confident, it’s called the helper’s high.
  • &: What did you work as?

    PO:

    I worked with women who were in domestically abusive relationships and women in refuges.

    The work I was doing involved a lot of giving, which is an important part of maintaining our mental health and wellbeing.

    When we give, it actually makes us feel better and more confident, it’s called the helper’s high.

    And then I did an ESL class to become an ESL teacher, so I was learning again, and I was an educator of people whose first language wasn't English.

  • I loved having an identity and I loved having independence. And of course the financial freedom, the choice that comes with having money. We should never underestimate that.
  • &: What were your experiences of work like?

    PO:

    I loved it.

    I loved having an identity and I loved having independence. And of course the financial freedom, the choice that comes with having money. We should never underestimate that.

  • No matter how many aspirations I had, I think at that time, my confidence was so low and I don't think I believed that I was capable of achieving. If the people around me hadn't spotted me as a talented young person and woman, and actually with the right support, I could be more successful than I was.
  • &: It sounds like these jobs were your first steps into the world of mental health.

    PO:

    I got into the world of mental health quite accidentally.

    First of all, I was doing community development work where I was supporting women and refugees.

    We identified that almost all the women that were in that situation had mental health struggles. I was doing basic things like ESOL classes and I met an even broader group of women who were trying to get into work and things like that.

    I became very much an advocate of women and getting them support services.

    But in hindsight, I was probably doing quite a lot of healing myself by looking after other people and learning what social care was about and what domestic violence was about; learning about women’s empowerment and the systems that perpetuate discrimination.

    I learned a lot very quickly, and that led to me being supported very much by my line managers.

    I was so lucky. I had amazing line managers who were like, “You're really great at this job; here's a door we're going to open and you should go on this course and on this program.”

    No matter how many aspirations I had, I think at that time, my confidence was so low and I don't think I believed that I was capable of achieving. If the people around me hadn't spotted me as a talented young person and woman, and actually with the right support, I could be more successful than I was.

    They were the people that opened the doors.

    They said, “Why don't you go on this course, which is a leadership program for people in the NHS.” So that's how my career really developed.

  • I was determined to prove to myself that women could lead businesses that were highly ethical, which Mental Health First Aid was...
  • Poppy chairing a global webinar on mental health. Credit: @poppyjaman via Instagram

  • &: How did things progress after that?

    PO:

    I started working for the Department of Health on race, equality, and mental health. They wanted to change the mental health sector so that they could be more inclusive and educate people.

    That job then led to Mental Health First Aid; so we were looking at how we could educate the British public on mental health. Mental Health First Aid was being rolled out in Scotland. Here in England, we looked at it and went, “Let's have a go at that.”

    A team of people were pooled together. I got the opportunity to lead that team and take Mental Health First Aid out of the Department of Health and I then set it up as a social enterprise.

    That became a decade's worth of work.

    On the one hand I was raising a young family as a single parent; on the other hand, my third baby was Mental Health First Aid.

    I was determined to prove to myself that women could lead businesses that were highly ethical, which Mental Health First Aid was.

    That someone without clinical qualification could actually play a really big part in normalizing mental health in the world - those became my drivers.

    I had no education around mental health and wellness. Neither did my family. And I look back now, when I was running Mental Health First Aid, one of the reflections I always had was, "What if we had Mental Health First Aid when I was a kid? When I was a young woman?" What if we had Mental Health First Aid that my parents had accessed when I was a teenager. Would the outcome or would my life experiences be very different?

    I guess Mental Health First Aid became deeply part of my DNA. I wanted to educate the world on mental health and that was the vehicle.

    In 2016, it was in the top 10 fastest growing women-led SMEs in the UK. And then the following year, it was in the top 500 fastest growing SMEs in Europe.

Motherhood & Mental Health

The early days

Loading...
  • @poppyjaman via Instagram

  • &: Congratulations! You’ve started a new organization too?

    PO:

    My organization now is called the City Mental Health Alliance and our vision is to create mentally healthy workplaces and we’re a decade old.

    We're in Hong Kong, Australia, Singapore, India, and we’re setting up chapters around the world. By the end of this year, I'm hoping that we're going to be launched in about eight countries. It's very exciting and I love it.

  • I wanted to be an engineer. I was really good at science, I really enjoyed it! My maths and science now are terrible, but I was really quite good at maths and science and electronic engineering.
  • &: Going back to your childhood years, did you know what you wanted to do when you were growing up?

    PO:

    I wanted to be an engineer. [laughs] I was really good at science, I really enjoyed it! My maths and science now are terrible, but I was really quite good at maths and science and electronic engineering.

    I actually started a higher national degree in electronics engineering at college and I did it for about half a term, and then I was taken to Bangladesh and I was married, but that's the career path that I really wanted.

    I remember thinking it was highly technical and there weren't women in that industry. Women in science now are still very low in numbers.

    I think that appealed to me. I wanted to be a trailblazer.

  • Poppy in 1992, @poppyjaman via Instagram

  • The dance dream went quite early on because I felt like it was always more shameful to be performing in public as a Bengali woman than to have a mental health struggle.
  • &: Dance was a part of your childhood and teenage years. Did you continue dancing?

    PO:

    No, I still hope that one day I'm going to perform on stage somewhere.

    I did dance for GCSE and that was very frowned upon by my family.

    They were like, “What are you doing as a Bengali Muslim girl dancing on stage?” In many south Asian cultures, dance is a part of their world, but not so much in the Bengali Muslim culture.

    I remember going to a few college things where they had dance schools coming from London to run workshops. But on the performance evening, I wasn't allowed to go, and it was just humiliating. I felt like I was letting the team down.

    I would have to make up excuses because I didn't want to say I'm not allowed. I felt like I would lose face amongst my peers, because I wasn't an independent young woman who was allowed to go out.

    The dance dream went quite early on because I felt like it was always more shameful to be performing in public as a Bengali woman than to have a mental health struggle.

    There was so much around women and our role and what we can and can’t do. Performing in public and having your body be observed was such a big deal.

    There’s still a little bit of me that thinks, “Maybe when I retire, I'll join a dance class.”

  • For a long time, I did that thing that many successful women do... but somebody had to lead that organization and manoeuvre the dynamics, and that was me and my executive team and my advisors.
  • &: You mentioned earlier that you wanted to *be something*. Do you now feel like you *have* become something?

    PO:

    Yeah, definitely. I feel the responsibility of role modelling strongly on my shoulders and I embrace it with both hands. It’s not a burden for me.

    For a long time, I did that thing that many successful women do, which is diminishing your achievements by saying, “Oh, it's nothing. And it’s everybody else’s [achievement] too.”

    And it is; you can't build an organization like that by yourself. The success of Mental Health First Aid lies with the hundreds, thousands of people that have adopted the training and have pushed it through.

    But somebody had to lead that organization and manoeuvre the dynamics, and that was me and my executive team and my advisors.

    That was being brave, not perfect—recognizing the limitations of my education and of my upbringing, and instead of letting the imposter syndrome hold me back, the people around me gave me the confidence to go for it.

    I felt like I didn’t have much to lose and I think I drew a lot of strength from that.

  • How many brown women do you see coming up from the social sector that are talking about successful leadership, running a business, and owning that?
  • Poppy, the keynote speaker at an event at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Credit: @poppyjaman via Instagram

  • &: What are some things that helped you to accept your leadership role and to stop diminishing your achievements?

    PO:

    I had coaching sessions, which I think are really important for career development. When I was younger, I used to get them more regularly and I remember having a coaching session about how to own your leadership and your brand and how to be a role model.

    I remember going, “I'm not really a role model.” We don't want to show off, but what I understood after that is that me owning my leadership and my success isn't me going on an ego trip.

    I'm not an egoistic person, so I'm not driven by ego. I do have to watch that because I don't want to be that person that I look at or that my daughters look at and go, “Oh God, she's talking about herself again.”

    How many brown women do you see coming up from the social sector that are talking about successful leadership, running a business, and owning that?

    If I don't do that, where do women like my daughters, where do they look to? To go, "Well actually, Poppy has done this and she's an Asian woman and maybe I can do that."

    I want to be the shoulders that the next generation of women can stand on to develop their careers and their motherhood styles. They can take lessons from the stuff that I did that wasn't so great and be incredible at what they do.

    My leadership story is one that I feel very proud of and I share it openly. Not because I need reminding that I'm successful—by my criteria.

    I'm successful through the impact that I've had in the mental health world and beyond.

    I'm currently helping Bangladesh develop their mental health strategy and I've done work with minoritized groups. I'm incredibly proud of the work that I do.

    I'm also very aware that I'm a 4’11’’ British-Bengali, little tiny brown woman. I want other Asian women to see and think, “Okay, she didn't have a first degree and she has mental health struggles and she didn't get it right, always. And she talks about it.”

    That creates hope at times when we feel hopeless to say that we can do this, it’s alright, we've got this and we've got each other.

  • I have a wellbeing toolkit or list to look after myself, which has changed over my lifetime. As I've got to know myself better, the list has become more fine tuned.
  • If I hadn't done that work, I don't think I'd be able to talk as articulately and as cleanly as I do because they would have been unprocessed emotions, which would have been quite triggering. I feel very safe talking about my lived experience because I've processed that through therapy.
  • &: Wow, that’s fantastic. How do you ensure that your own mental health and physical health are taken care of?

    PO:

    I know my early warning signs really well. When you've been really unwell, you get to grips with what causes you mental health challenges.

    I call that the stress signatures; your stress signatures are unique to you and they will typically be behavioural, emotional, and physical things.

    For example, physically I get a jaw ache and emotionally I get quite irritable and snappy. I can cry at the most ridiculous things. And behaviourally I micromanage people. For example, instead of sending 1 email, I might send 10 emails, which is really poor management bearing in mind that my whole organization is about workplace mental health. [laughs]

    I have a wellbeing toolkit or list to look after myself, which has changed over my lifetime. As I've got to know myself better, the list has become more fine tuned.

    When I start noticing a couple of my stress signatures, I intervene and do something from my wellbeing toolkit.

    In my wellbeing toolkit is yoga; I practice yoga at least three times a week, usually first thing in the morning. Having said that, I haven’t practiced yoga in the last 3 weeks and I’m beginning to feel the impact of that. Yoga is a prevention strategy for me.

    I also have a coach in the background, and whether I'm seeing my coach fortnightly or whether it's once every three months, it helps me to just check that I still have purity of purpose, that I'm still doing what I believe in.

    I also have 2 or 3 therapists whom I've collected over the years. When my dad died, bereavement therapy was quite important to me and I saw a particular therapist who was excellent at that.

    When I was going through a very difficult time about a decade ago, I saw a clinical psychotherapist and we did some deep work on childhood and all of the stuff that I've talked to you about.

    If I hadn't done that work, I don't think I'd be able to talk as articulately and as cleanly as I do because they would have been unprocessed emotions, which would have been quite triggering. I feel very safe talking about my lived experience because I've processed that through therapy.

  • Poppy in nature. Credit: @poppyjaman via Instagram

  • &: Do you do any sports or activities?

    PO:

    I do cold water swimming. I've adopted that this year and it’s very invigorating.

    My husband and I swim in Brighton; actually it was him that introduced it to me. I was like, “My DNA's not made for seawater. I’m Asian, we do hot water.”

    But actually, it's been really good. When I've been cold water swimming—and when I say swimming, I mean like five minutes—I feel like it's a reset.

    It sharpens my thinking and it helps my circulation. It gives me a boost of energy that seems to last 2, 3, 4 days.

    I just feel more alive after a cold water dip. I thoroughly recommend it.

  • We're going to Bath and we're going to be doing retreat and we're going to be having cocktails and going out That is really crucial. And I think it's really important to build that in every six weeks every month.
  • &: What about community? It’s been a constant theme in your life.

    PO:

    My friends are a great help. One of the hardest things in lockdowns was not seeing my girlfriends. That was really tough and we did Zoom calls and things, but next week I'm going away with my girlfriends for four days.

    We're going to Bath and we're going to be doing retreat and we're going to be having cocktails and going out. That is really crucial. And I think it's really important to build that in every six weeks every month.

    I always go away for a week or so with my daughters. This year we're going to Gower for five days.

  • Poppy and the poppies in her Aunty Jane's garden. Credit: @poppyjaman via Instagram

  • It's a work in progress, but I've really enjoyed finding my voice in that way. I'm loud and I've learned to project my voice because that's what you do when you're on stage, but to actually use my voice in my mother tongue and perform a song which is out of my British cultural framework is very fun.
  • &: I think I also saw that you started taking singing lessons. How is that going?

    PO:

    Really badly! [laughs]

    I guess there's this part of me that feels unfulfilled?

    I've stood on stages all around the world, talking about mental health, but I would love to one day be on stage and be doing something artistic.

    People say to me, “What you talk about and the way that you do it is art.”

    But I'm like, “It’s not. It’s campaigning, it's lobbying, it's sharing information.”

    During lockdown, I heard this Bengali song. My Bengali isn’t fluent, but this song really struck a chord. It was about female empowerment.

    Some of the words translate to, “You could tie me up and lock me up, but you can't take away my spirit. You can't take away my drive.”

    It really landed with me. I heard this song and I was like, “I want to sing that song one day.”

    I have a really good friend called Sohini Alam. She's a famous Bengali singer and she’s just had a baby so she’s been on maternity leave. I phoned her up and went, “I want private lessons over Zoom with you.”

    We've been doing private lessons for probably about eight or nine months, and Sohini tells me I'm improving, but I know it's bad.

    This is a 20 year project! [laughs]

    It's a work in progress, but I've really enjoyed finding my voice in that way. I'm loud and I've learned to project my voice because that's what you do when you're on stage, but to actually use my voice in my mother tongue and perform a song which is out of my British cultural framework is very fun.

    I hold hope that one day I might dance and one day I might even sing, but I wouldn't be bragging about them and telling anybody about them. [laughs]

    It’s just fun.

  • I would definitely like to go on a tour of Southeast Asia and learn about natural products and natural dyes. It would be so completely different from the last 25 years of my career. If I was to design a learning experience, I'd go off and do something like that. Maybe I will.
  • &: That’s fantastic. What else do you want to learn?

    PO:

    God, there's so much that I'd really like to learn.

    I'd like to learn sign language. There’s something really cool about learning a different language that will universally cut across many languages.

    I also have an enormous collection of sarees. I'm learning so much about hand looms and block prints and dyes that have been naturally made and weaves that have been naturally pulled together by artisans. I really believe in supporting ethical fashion so I very rarely buy new clothes.

    That is my way of trying to do my little bit for sustainability and the planet, but also it's my way of finding artisans and art that is dying from south Asian cultures, where we no longer have whole communities that were designed around making a particular type of weave because big enterprises have come along and taken over.

    I would definitely like to go on a tour of Southeast Asia and learn about natural products and natural dyes. It would be so completely different from the last 25 years of my career. If I was to design a learning experience, I'd go off and do something like that. Maybe I will.

  • It was coming up to World Mental Health Day and I was speaking at conferences over Zoom and I couldn't find my green ribbon. So I put a green saree on and I said on the conference call, “I haven't got my green ribbon, but I've got my green saree on. And I'm here today talking about mental health.”
  • &: I actually wanted to talk about #GreenSareeForMentalHealth. How did that come about? Fashion and mental health - what is the connection?

    PO:

    Green sarees for mental health was a really powerful initiative that came about a couple of years ago.

    When my youngest daughter started university, within the first few months lockdown kicked in, and a young person from her friendship network died by suicide.

    I work in this space so suicide isn't a new subject for me, but the fact that it had happened to somebody that was in such close proximity to my youngest daughter was horrendous.

    This happened in September, and World Mental Health Day is in October. In the mental health world, there's a thing called the green ribbon campaign.

    The idea is that if you wear a green ribbon, you're giving the green light to talk about mental health.

    We were all feeling the impact of the suicide and we were working out how we could support my daughter and also support the parents of the young person that passed away.

    It was coming up to World Mental Health Day and I was speaking at conferences over Zoom and I couldn't find my green ribbon. So I put a green saree on and I said on the conference call, “I haven't got my green ribbon, but I've got my green saree on. And I'm here today talking about mental health.”

    That got picked up by some of my friends on Twitter. And they were like, “We should do a ‘green saree for mental health’ day.”

    It ballooned very quickly and I thought it was a great idea.

  • We created a Zoom drop-in at 10:00 AM for 10 minutes. We said to everybody...
  • #GreenSareeForMentalHealth #GreenForMentalHealth Credit: @poppyjaman via Instagram

  • &: What happened on that day?

    PO:

    We created a Zoom drop-in at 10:00 AM for 10 minutes.

    We said to everybody, “The hashtag is #GreenSareeForMentalHealth or #GreenForMentalHealth. Turn up to this Zoom call wearing something green, or ideally a green saree, and if you can't join, then use the hashtag on Twitter, Instagram, wherever you want to and post a picture of yourself.”

    We asked questions like, “What does mental health mean to you? What do you use as your wellbeing strategies?”

    I'm part of a saree network on Instagram called Saree Speak. Suddenly all of these women from around the world were posting on social media. In the end, I think we had 3,000 posts using the hashtag. It was just amazing and there was no PR effort put in.

    The 10-minute call was so powerful. We honoured the young person who had died; we talked about the fact that we, as parents, need to lean in and have a compassionate dialogue with our children, and we need to be open about mental health.

    And we celebrated all of the people that have struggled and continue to struggle. We honoured the people that we've lost in our communities. We were all in tears for 10 minutes.

    #GreenSareeForMentalHealth was a huge success and it came out of two really random things that were connected together and were really powerful.

    What I really also loved about it was the fact that the green saree is an Asian item, and it brought the conversation of mental health into our home through a beautiful item.

    Two or three months afterwards, I was still reading messages from people saying, “When I participated in the green saree for mental health, my friend opened up and told me this, my cousin told me this, etc.” It was a huge success.

  • From IG friends to IRL friends thanks to the @sareespeak community. Credit: @poppyjaman via Instagram

  • &: What else does a saree mean to you?

    PO:

    A saree is like a hug. On days when I feel rubbish, wearing my soft cotton saree feels like I've wrapped myself up in a big hug.

    I'm part of a saree-wearing community; there’s around 160,000 of us around the world and many of us have connected on Instagram or Twitter.

    Pre-pandemic, every time I was going to another country, I would write to a few people and say, “I'm coming to your home city, are you going to be around?” And then I meet these women and we go out for a drink.

    One time, I met a woman called Nehar in Washington and we ended up walking around for about five hours just sharing each other's lives, having never met before that evening.

    It was quite funny when I emailed her, I was like, “Where should we meet?” And we agreed to meet at a point and then we both went, “Well, how are we going to see each other?”

    And then we were like, “Actually, we'll probably be the only women that are wearing sarees.” [laughs]

    Some of the friends that I've made through the saree community have been incredible.

    Also, we pass on sarees from generation to generation in the same way that we pass on trauma and healing.

    For me, sarees have so many different meanings, but the most important thing is that it opens up a conversation.

  • I am a mother. I am a leader. I am a feminist. I'm an activist. I'm a wannabe dancer/singer. And I'm a citizen of the world that's got a lot of curiosity about the world.
  • &: What a lovely story. Finally, to wrap up, what terms would you use to define who you are?

    PO:

    I am a mother. I am a leader. I am a feminist. I'm an activist.

    I'm a wannabe dancer/singer. [laughs]

    And I'm a citizen of the world that's got a lot of curiosity about the world.

On the Feed

Keep swiping

01 / 05
Loading...
Ampersand Next up

01 / 02

Pearl Steffie

If I had to choose between cooking and modelling, I’d pick cooking, in a heartbeat.

Ampersand logo
0