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Cecile Sy
Photo taken by Abby Shen
Interviewed in July 2023

Cecile Sy is a proud first-gen Filipino-Australian. She grew up in Manila, and moved to Sydney at around 20 years old. She is a vocal advocate for mental health awareness, especially in the Asian and CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse) communities, and is a tenured volunteer speaker for Beyond Blue.

Cecile has a professional background in strategic corporate communications, and is hugely passionate about helping others realise their personal development goals. Aside from her speaking engagements for Beyond Blue, she promotes mental health awareness on a personal advocacy account which you can check out here.
You’ve been a volunteer speaker at Beyond Blue for 7 years now, since 2016. What motivated you to become a speaker?
I have lived experience with depression and anxiety. At the beginning of my mental health journey, I felt so alone, confused, and ashamed. I didn’t tell anyone about my struggles in fear of being judged. I also knew that my family wouldn’t understand what I was going through.

I started opening up about my mental health experience in my Toastmasters speeches, at a previous corporate Toastmasters club. I was so scared but I eventually “came out” and made a speech about my depression, which shocked everyone since I had kept such a facade the whole time. I ended up delivering that speech all the way to the Toastmasters Western Division Inspirational Speech contest. After that speech, so many people in my club, the company I worked for, and other Toastmasters clubs opened up to me about their own experiences - about their own mental health struggles or about someone they knew. I found that a lot of people actually resonated with my story.

I decided to apply as a volunteer speaker for Beyond Blue because I had personally used their resources in my recovery, and found the entire organisation to be so helpful. I applied for a speaking position because I wanted to raise awareness around mental health, especially in the Asian and CALD communities. My hope was to help normalise conversations around mental health and in the process, encourage others to come out of the shadows and seek help. I wanted people to know that they’re not alone and that there’s always hope.
You primarily promote mental health awareness in the Asian and CALD communities. What are common threads and stories that you often hear in these communities?
Since I have an Asian background, I’ve experienced the misconceptions, stigma, and cultural barriers to seeking help in the Asian community firsthand. I’ve discovered that the experiences are very similar for other CALD communities, from prior speaking engagements.

What I often hear is that there’s this pressure to perform academically and achieve. I’ve met so many young people who feel this pressure, and parents who acknowledge that they place this pressure on their children too. For many Asians and migrants, the key to success is through education and hard work because there’s such limited job opportunities and high competition back in their home countries. Parents often just want their children to have the best chance in life. Unfortunately, this can result in perfectionism, low self-esteem, and equating self-worth to achievements and success, which can affect people’s mental health.

There’s also a common misconception that seeking help or treatment for your mental health is a sign of weakness. Or that going to counselling or therapy is only for “crazy” people, when in truth seeking help earlier on is a sign of courage, and a smart choice. Mental health should be treated as seriously as physical health, and it’s better to seek help early on, rather than later when it’s worse. Besides, many people don’t realise that there are so many treatment options to help with your recovery. It’s not a one size fits all situation.

Another thing that’s prevalent in the CALD communities, is a feeling of guilt. Often, when younger people open up about their mental health struggles to their parents, they may get a response that invalidates their emotions and experiences because their parents have gone through “real hardship” in comparison, and they’re often dismissed as being “too emotional or sensitive”. As a result, it’s likely that they’re left undiagnosed. And then when an individual does get diagnosed with a mental health condition, so much shame and stigma is attached to it. It’s treated like a “dirty secret” or a taboo topic.
How do you think your Filipino culture and support network affected your relationship with your mental health?
Initially, it was tough. The concept of “depression” is lost amongst the community simply because most Filipinos are happy and fun-loving. People think that you’re just lonely. You’re told that the remedy is to not take life too seriously, to go out, and talk to friends. Also, a lot of Filipinos are religious, so I heard a lot of advice from well-meaning friends and family members to pray and “have a stronger faith in God”. Although praying can help, it’s sometimes not enough.

Most Filipinos are also family-oriented, and fortunately I became much closer to my family as I got older. I only begun to become more open about my struggles when I saw symptoms of depression in other family members. It was important to educate my family on mental health, so that my experiences weren’t repeated in my other family members. We’ve definitely come a long way. I acknowledge that they don’t always get things right, but I understand that they mean well, and that we are all still learning together in the process. I also know that they want to help and support me, but sometimes don’t know how to.
How has being more open about your mental health, and sharing your story with strangers, colleagues, friends and family impacted you?
What I’ve come to realise is, there’s power in telling our stories. By sharing my story, I’m creating a safe space for others. I’m letting people know that they’re not alone and allowing them to feel okay about not being okay, and giving them a space to open up about their own struggles. In my small way, I’m helping normalise conversations around mental health - creating a space for dialogue and learning. I’m empowering others to seek help and maybe even help others. And in the process, I’m also empowering myself.

A revolution starts with one person. If I can influence one person to change their mind about mental health, my hope is that they pass that knowledge forward to someone else.
What has personally helped you the most on your mental health journey?
For me, counselling, self-care, and being more open about my mental health journey have allowed me to live a more authentic and meaningful life.

Counselling and going to therapy has made me feel seen and helped me become more self-aware. It also helped me understand what I was going through, and I learned some practical strategies to manage my anxiety and depression that I still use to this day.

Self-care is now an important part of my life and routine. I have a Self-care Toolkit, and it’s not all massages, facials, and warm baths. I try to do things that I enjoy, like painting, drawing, cooking, and travelling. I try to live a healthier lifestyle, exercise regularly, and spend more time in nature. I love hiking! I also do all sorts of workouts, like yoga, zumba, dance fitness, swimming, pilates, strength and conditioning, HIIT, and Strong Nation classes. I try to connect with friends and family regularly, and reach out when I’m struggling. I try to journal, pray, and meditate. I also like learning new things. Right now, I’m learning tennis and Spanish. But I’ve also tried learning basketball, piano, snowboarding, baking, and making my own pasta. I’ll give anything a crack!
on culture and identity
How was it like moving to Australia from the Philippines at around 20 years old?
It was tough and I was unprepared! Like many other skilled migrants, I thought that I had left my home country for greener pastures. But when I arrived here as an international student, I experienced more struggles than I had imagined - financial, emotional, social, mental, bullying and racial discrimination, etc. I also felt that my qualifications were discounted, and was forced to work in jobs unrelated to my educational background. But they were decent jobs that paid the bills, so I was thankful for them. 

I left most of my family and support group in the Philippines, so I felt very isolated. Mind you, this was the time before Google Maps and free instant messaging apps. So, it was harder to find information and connect with people back home. Besides, I also didn’t feel like I could open up about what I was going through because no one would understand. There were people who  sacrificed a lot for me and people who were in tougher circumstances back home, so I felt that I had no right to complain. But I was raised with tough love and taught to never give up, so I persevered. And now, I call Australia my home.

I am very aware that my story is not that unique. There are many other migrants or international students who experienced something similar, so I want to use the platform and voice I have to shed light on the struggles that migrants face.
What has your relationship with your Asian Australian identity been like, and how has it evolved?
Because I grew up in the Philippines that had many Western influences, when I first came to Australia, I tried to “assimilate”.  I worked on changing my accent because even though I was fluent in English, I felt that picking up an Australian accent would make it easier for me to be understood by locals and vice-versa. When I worked in a call centre, customers would pick up on my accent and accuse me of “not being in Australia”. I also used to dye my hair and wear coloured contacts because I grew up with the notion that I looked more attractive that way.

As years passed and I got older, I began to slowly understand and develop a stronger connection to my Asian identity. I met other Asian Australians who were active in the social change movement, and passionate about creating platforms for other Asian Australians. I learned a lot from them and continued to educate myself, while trying to discover who I was. And as I progressed in my mental health journey, I started to embrace a more authentic life. Part of that is being proud of being Filipino and my Asian Australian identity. Everytime I go back to the Philippines for holidays, I try to visit more places I’ve never been to and continue to educate myself more about our history and culture. This was something I took for granted when I was growing up.

I also try to support and connect with other passionate Asian Australians who are doing incredible work out there because I believe in the importance of representation.
What is a significant cultural memory of yours?
Food is in our Filipino DNA. Almost every milestone or significant event in our life has amazing food involved - birthdays, baptisms, office parties and potlucks, weddings, graduation, or any excuse for celebration. Even during sad moments, like when a loved one gets sick or passes away, there’s food for everyone. Because food brings us together, provides comfort, and is our way of showing love. So, I’m thrilled that Filipino cuisine is beginning to get recognition in Australia and around the world. We’re sharing the love with everyone!
What is your favourite food from your culture?
I can’t choose one. I love adobo, sinigang, kare-kare, lumpia, halo-halo, and lechon. Also, I love Jollibee, which is like the Filipino Maccas!
Who is an Asian Australian that inspires you, and why?
I love food and I’m a MasterChef fan, so I love Poh Ling Yeow. I remember seeing her in the first season of Masterchef, and being so excited to see someone who looked like me on TV. She used food to reconnect with her roots and showcase her culture, which I appreciated.

I also feel like she’s compassionate, authentic, creative, and has a smile that lights up the room. I can relate to her. And she also likes to take risks! Who can forget Season 12’s Strawberry Chiffon Cake episode that almost gave us a heart attack? Taking more risks is something I’m trying to do more now.