Aakanksha Tangri is the very definition of a high achiever. She has degrees from the University of Toronto and Columbia University in New York. As a journalist she has worked at the Canadian Broadcasting Company and CNN. She has reported extensively on Indian politics and interviewed figures as diverse as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and celebrity chef Antony Bourdain. Forbes magazine has included her on its 30 under 30 list of young influential people and last year she launched Re:Set, an online publication focusing on mental health, gender issues, special needs and parenting. And she is still only in her 20s.
If asked to explain why she is so successful at such a young age, Tangri would probably say it is all down to never being “shushed” as a child.
“At home, we talked about tough subjects,” she says. “The conversation around the dinner table would be about politics or gender equality. I was in the habit of watching the news on BBC World with my dad and he would ask my opinion on world events. Both my parents were into education and they never shushed me when I asked something.”
When she chose journalism as a career – going against the aspirational South Asian stereotype of medicine, the law or engineering – her parents gave her every encouragement.
“In our house, it was ‘do what you want and pursue it with passion,’” Tangri recalls.
And do it she did. After graduating with a degree in journalism from university in Toronto, she moved to New York to do a master’s degree in international relations and South Asian studies at prestigious Columbia University. During her time there she helped organize the India Business Conference and interned on GPS, the CNN current affairs show hosted by Farid Zakaria.
She rejoined her family in Dubai – “the perfect combination of east and west” – three years ago and found that her own interest in mental health was also top of the agenda in the UAE.
“Everyone was talking about mental health and inclusion but they were barely scratching the surface. Nobody was actually going deep into the challenges and the opportunities available to make a change in the country, including India, where there is such a stigma and a taboo around mental health. I felt the need to do something about these important issues.”
That something turned out to be Re:Set, a platform for online dialogues with experts on subjects as diverse as raising a child with Down’s syndrome to how to manage exam stress.
When Tangri launched Re:Set in April 2019, she had little idea of how to go about it. But as a journalist, she had no compunction about asking for help and persisting until she got it.
“There was a lot of bugging people to teach me things,” she says. “I sat in front of a computer a lot and picked the brains of some incredible mentors. I got my brother to teach me how to make a business plan. I sat with website developers.”
The name Re:Set refers to the act of deliberately challenging conventional ideas about mental health issues and seeking to reframe – or re-set – them.
“At Re:Set we don’t say someone is suffering from a mental health issue, we say they are facing a mental health issue. Just changing the word can make an impact on how a person perceives what they’re going through. Language can have such an impact. There’s a lack of nuance when it comes to tackling mental health, inclusion or gender-based challenges and that’s what we wanted to change at Re:Set, especially in places where there’s a lack of understanding or a stigma.
“Seeking support is not a bad thing. I believe everyone should go see a therapist, regardless of whether you have a mental health challenge or not. It gives you coping tools, especially in a pandemic.”
Apart from the social stigma that still surrounds mental health, there is the question of cost. Getting help is expensive. The dialogues hosted by Re:Set offer a safe space free of charge where those uncomfortable conversations can take place, says Tangri, as well as pointing people toward services in the UAE which are also cost-free.
They have also helped her personally, she adds.
“We did one with influential entrepreneurs in the UAE and India, talking about perfectionism and learning how to let go. For me, learning to let go really resonated with me.”
Instead of constantly checking analytics far into the night, she now turns her phone on to airplane mode a few hours before bedtime, does breathing exercises and dabs essential oils on her pillow to promote good sleep.
One key strategy Tangri has learned is to take things slowly, though she admits she needed to have it “drilled in” to her.
“Someone really needed to tell me to go slow and steady. Don’t give up if you can’t incorporate it all. Start slow and build it up. That worked for me.”
With her background, it is perhaps hardly surprising that Tangri says she finds small talk tiring.
“I get very panicky and I tend to overthink,” she says. “I’m an introvert. I prefer one-to-one encounters to groups.”
In the three years since she returned to the UAE, she has seen enormous changes in attitudes, especially in inclusivity, says Tangri. It’s a change that she believes began with the Special Olympics which she says “captured the spirit of the UAE.” The first Re:Set dialogue was with Dr Tim Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics.
“It used to be unusual to see someone in a wheelchair but the Special Olympics was a real leap and helped foster such a sense of community and such a positive environment.
“There’s been a huge shift toward the positive in people’s mindset. Now schools have measures in place for people of determination. There’s an inclusive education policy and everyone is on the same page to give students of determination with invisible disabilities the same opportunities. Even that name, people of determination – I love it! We can never have enough conversations about mental health. There will always be one life you can change, one life you can impact.”
How can people dive below the superficial and deepen the discourse?
“It’s about finding more like-minded people. Changing the mindset of your family or friends can be very tricky if you don’t share their views. In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement, everyone was talking about how to talk to your kids. We flipped it around so it’s about how to talk to your parents.”
What of the future of Re:Set? Where does Tangri want to take it?
“Where wouldn’t I take it? We have lots of plans underway to make people more aware of resources we offer free of charge. Ultimately, our goal is to start conversations about people’s lives and whatever challenges they face.”
And of course, to never, ever be shushed.
Aakanksha Tangri was a guest on The Livehealthy.ae podcast on November 11, 2020
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.