Step Above Stigma founder wins Ascend Canada’s Social Impact Award

In 2017, Ampai Thammachack founded Step Above Stigma at Queen’s University, a charity that strives to increase mental health accessibility and end the stigma of mental illness. This year, the 24-year-old was recognized by Ascend Canada with the Social Impact Award for her exceptional charity work.

Ampai Thammachack with her Ascend Canada Social Impact Award for 2021. Currently studying at Queen’s University, Thammachack founded Step Above Stigma five years ago, aiming to enhance accessibility to mental health resources for university students. Submitted photo.

Ascend Canada is a non-profit organization that aims to enhance the presence, visibility, and influence of current and future Pan-Asian business leaders. “[Thammachack] has committed to providing impactful and creative solutions to persisting societal changes,” Ascend Canada says on its website, announcing Thammachack’s award. “Ampai is a leader and a voice of change in the mental health community.”

Thammachack says that this award means a lot to her as a second-generation immigrant. She recalls the barriers that her father endured when he arrived in Canada, and attributes much of her success to him. “It means a lot to carry on what my dad started and be able to push for representation in Pan-Asian leadership across Canada,” she says.

“I’ve always felt like the only one, or felt isolated,” Thammachack says. “I’m half-Jamaican and half-Laotian… so it’s always been a sort of thing where you don’t see yourself represented in leadership or in any of the rooms you’re in, so you’re constantly paving the way for yourself and figuring things out as you go.”

However, she finds joy in being a mentor and role model. “All of these aspects of my identity have made me a leader that I’m proud of,” Thammachack says. “I have a lot of women, a lot of BIPOC individuals who have reached out to me and asked me for mentorship, and that means a lot because now I am able to be that face that I didn’t have growing up.”

After struggling with mental illness herself, Thammachack wanted to bridge the gaps in mental health resources and education that she witnessed. Since 2017, Step Above Stigma has had over 700 volunteers, raised $245,000 in funds, hosted over 500 events, and expanded from Kingston to three more chapters across Canada.

Thammachack’s Social Impact Award from Ascend Canada. Submitted photo.

Currently, Thammachack is completing her master’s degree in Human Geography at Queen’s University, studying how to make mental health resources at the university more accessible for black students. Her work was also recognized by L’Oreal Paris Canada earlier this year, when she was named a ‘Women of Worth’ honouree.

Thammachack acknowledges that gaps in mental health care are often larger for intersectional individuals struggling with mental illness, and there is a lack of data regarding these populations. “Black people weren’t even included in what defines certain mental illnesses today,” Thammachack says. “We have to collect data on different intersectionalities within mental health if we are going to treat people as whole people… If we don’t try to take care of people with every facet of their identity, then we’re not really going to be taking care of people.”

She also wants to see change from the top, calling on the government to support marginalized communities and focusing on mental health from an intersectional lens. “Mental health is very stigmatized, especially in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour) communities, because we are taught that we have to be resilient, just the way our parents were… If we don’t [create systemic change], then we’re not going to be able to trickle down into communities and end up funding the programs that we need.”

“I also want to see more funding to help professionals that are BIPOC, or are women, or are from marginalized communities, so that they can take on careers in the psychology and mental health space,” says Thammachack; this will allow people to “get support from people they feel they can relate to.”

Thammachack wants people to know that they aren’t alone in their mental health struggles. She has her own process during her dark times, reminding herself of her loved ones and her self-worth. “Take a deep breath,” she says. “Remind yourself that you’re doing great, because you probably are.”

Editorial note: If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health struggles, contact Addictions and Mental Health Services of Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington (AMHSKFLA) to connect with the appropriate resources. If you or someone you know is facing a mental health emergency, contact the AMHSKFLA 24-hour crisis line at 613-544-4229 if you’re in Kingston or Frontenac County, or at 613-354-3788 if you’re in Lennox and Addington County.

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