How Mental Health Advocate, De-Mario Knowles, Is Changing the Conversation Through Poetry

As a part of our ‘My Mental Health Story’ series featuring the inspiring and impactful stories of our community members, we chatted with De-Mario Knowles (he/him) to discuss his mental health story.

Check it out below!

Thank you to De-Mario for participating in the interview and sharing your story!

#1 Who are you? What do you stand for? What’s your story?

“My name is De-Mario Knowles (he/him). I am a Black and Cree Indigenous 18-year-old award-winning keynote speaker, poet, entrepreneur, and researcher from Durham, Ontario. I stand for a lot of things, as I am a multi-faceted individual, but one thing that I stand for is mental health advocacy.

Growing up in Durham, I never really used to stand out amongst my peers. I liked to draw, but I was never artistic. I was good at school, but I was never at the top of my class. I even eventually grew a liking for basketball, but I was never athletic. I lacked many traits that made me socially acceptable, and I used to struggle to fit in with my classmates because of that. In my eyes, I was simply the nice kid who loved Nintendo.

As I am someone who loves to interact with others, you could probably expect that I used to feel lonely since I didn’t fit in with my peers. There were a few people who were willing to be my friends, and I will always cherish them greatly, but it was disheartening to walk around on the playground at 10 years old, all alone, while everyone else had someone to play with. On top of that, I had a pretty high-pitched voice for a guy, so I used to get made fun of because of my voice. I remember one of my classmates telling me, “No one will ever want to be your friend,” back when I was in the sixth grade. These words echoed in my mind daily, and I started to develop social anxiety because I was afraid that I would be made fun of simply because of the way that I spoke.

Things were pretty bad for a while, but they started to turn around when I reached high school. In the tenth grade, I made the decision to get involved in my school community. I discovered that I had a passion for helping others, and I believed that getting involved in leadership opportunities would be a good way to start my advocacy journey. Things were going very well at this point in time! I was unanimously voted into my school’s leadership council, I was a member of the well-being committee, and I even played a role in implementing a more inclusive dress code for my school board as a member of the Student Senate. I was finally beginning to believe that I found my purpose. That is, until an unprecedented major event that shut down current operations for an indefinite amount of time came into existence: COVID-19.

The pandemic was the bringer of grief that turned everything upside-down. Almost every leadership opportunity that I was involved in either shut down completely or switched to a virtual platform. I watched everything that I had worked hard for and dreamed of for my whole life crumble to pieces with my own two eyes. The community that I worked so hard to build was disintegrating into dust. In addition, I knew that I was going to complete my last two years of high school virtually due to personal reasons, so everything and everyone that I knew as I grew up prematurely exited my life. I didn’t get to have the opportunity to go through 14 years of public education with my few friends and then say goodbye after graduation. In the blink of an eye, the life that I knew was gone, and it was never going to come back.

Once it hit me that my life was never going to be the same, I started to fall into a great depression. I remember laying in my bed as the days went by, not reaching out to anyone for several months. At the time, I didn’t see any point in life if things were never going to be like how they were before. Of course, we now know that we are navigating in person once again, but back then, I had no certainty if I would even be able to go to the grocery store without putting my health at risk. All I could feel was nothing at all: the sense of numbness was all that I knew. However, my life began to turn around due to an unexpected catalyst that shaped the way that I perceived life: my grade 11 English class.

Despite succumbing to poor mental health and teenage woes, I decided to fast-track grade 11 English by taking it in summer school in July 2020. In this class, I was tasked with creating a podcast episode about a topic of my choice. I used to dabble around with music production here and there, but I was never skilled enough to produce my own soundtrack for a podcast episode. Hence, I turned to YouTube to search for free instrumentals to use as background music for my podcast episode. During my search, I found an independent producer named Lexnour. Lex is a fellow Canadian like myself, so I naturally was inclined to learn more about him. I was absolutely fascinated by the fact that he was independent since that meant that he was not signed to a record label and had full control over his work. As I was searching through the list of artists that he worked with, I found this one individual who stood out to me. This individual goes by the name Dax, and he has changed my life for the better.

De-Mario in Downtown Toronto with Dax.

Dax stood out to me for many reasons. For starters, he is a Black and Indigenous man who grew up in the province of Ontario: three characteristics that we both have in common. In addition, Dax was also independent, which made me happy to see, as you don’t see many people with as much notoriety as Dax without a record label. However, the thing that stood out to me about Dax the most is that he is a rapper who raps about topics with substance. I won’t lie; I enjoy listening to artists like Drake and Lil Baby from time to time. What surprised me, though, is that Dax had songs about things that I believe many people can relate to, such as mental health struggles, PTSD, being a victim of infidelity, and motivation towards achieving personal goals. I don’t relate to all of the music that Dax makes, but it makes me happy to see that someone can thrive in a genre that’s filled with references to drugs, slurs, and murder by making conscious and relatable music. Because of this, I strived to be just like Dax as much as I could. I found out that he used to be a motivational speaker and a poet before he became an artist, so that’s what I decided that I was going to do with my life.

Fast forward to January 2021: I got accepted into a non-profit organization called A Teen Perspective. This was an activism organization made by teens for teens. At the time, most of our published work consisted of journal articles written by various members of the team about social injustice issues in society, such as the murder of George Floyd, and other topics, such as colourism and prejudice. Because our work was so dominated by articles, our President proposed the idea that someone in the team could write a poem for Bell Let’s Talk Day since that was the next big event that was coming up at the time. As someone who used to despise English class, I would never dream of volunteering to take on this task. However, I saw myself volunteering immediately, and I instantly regretted the decision. On the contrary, that same decision would be another major event that would shape the trajectory for the rest of my life.

I had no idea how to write the poem for Bell Let’s Talk Day. I hated creative writing at the time because my school curriculum filled all my language classes with pieces of text by writers who never looked like me and with topics that I couldn’t relate to. I have full respect for people who admire those types of writing, but I could never understand how reading Romeo and Juliet in a version of English that I didn’t understand would help me face the social exclusion that I was facing due to the sound of my voice. Because of these circumstances, I decided to take an unconventional approach, and I chose to write the poem as if I were having a conversation with other people. Because this poem was a mental health poem for Bell Let’s Talk Day, I decided to come up with the most creative name I could think of for a mental health poem: i wrote this poem about mental health.

Prior to my poetry era, my Instagram looked like what you would expect from a modern-day teenager: a bunch of selfies and reposts of funny memes. However, when I posted the poem, everything changed. My following began to skyrocket, and I started getting likes and comments from so many people that I never spoke to before.

The poem was a massive success, and I began to see how powerful transparency can be when it is used for good. I even received the chance to read i wrote this poem about mental health to two different elementary schools in Durham, which was a highlight for the early stages of my career. I began writing more poems about other topics, such as bad days, bullying, and depression.

As I began to gain more notoriety for my name and my work, I started to receive more leadership opportunities, with one of the biggest ones being the role of Student Trustee for public education in Durham. This was the largest student advocacy role that one could earn in the Durham region at the high school level, and I was grateful to receive the opportunity to serve my fellow students in Durham along with 4 other amazing Student Trustees in the region.

DeMario Featured Image
De-Mario giving a talk at Durham College alongside Boi-1da, a Grammy-winning producer who has worked with music’s biggest artists, including Beyonce, Drake, and Rihanna.

Fast forward to May 2022: I get invited to a conference in a hotel in Downtown Toronto. For privacy reasons, specific details will be left out of this portion of my story, but I will note that I remember dancing in a conference room to ear-destroying music with a bunch of other advocacy leaders. In this same room, I hear a girl the same age as myself call my name at the top of her lungs. The girl told me that she was a fan of my poetry work, which surprised me because I was on a one-year hiatus at the time. We decided to go to the front of the hotel to have a conversation away from the noise with some water.

During our conversation, I felt like I was speaking to someone that I knew for years. We discovered that we had many things in common, and we opened up about our mental health struggles to an extent that is very surprising for meeting someone that you just met an hour ago. The girl asked me why I was on a hiatus from writing, and I truthfully told her that I felt ashamed for posting my struggles for the public to see. However, she told me that my writing is nothing to be ashamed of since it takes great strength to be able to face hardship and turn it into a constructive medium for healing. This conversation shifted the way that I perceived my writing, and I developed a strong bond with the girl that I was speaking with. Unfortunately, due to unplanned circumstances, I had to leave the conversation early to go back to my hotel room, but the girl and I decided to meet up again the following day when she was going to leave the hotel.

Fast forward to the following day, I saw the girl during our lunch break. I spent the entire morning looking for her, so she told me, “It’s like I’m from a fairy tale; you thought you’d never see me again!” when I told her that I was worried that she left earlier than expected. We both desperately had to return to our hotel rooms, so we weren’t able to stick around during our lunch break, but we decided to meet up later that night when she was going to leave to go home. However, since she left earlier than planned, I never knew that her statement that she said from before would actually come true.

This part of the story is pretty intense, so I recommend mentally preparing yourself before you continue.

One month later, I found out that the girl passed away in a car crash. I became devastated because it felt like I had finally found someone who truly understood me in the 17 years that I had lived on this planet at the time. I remember shaking in my seat as I read the news, and I was in a constant state of denial for several months. Because the girl was a fan of my writing, I decided that I was going to do whatever I could to become the most inspirational individual that I could be. I began writing my poems in the first person so they could be more personal and relatable, and I began to take public speaking more seriously, especially since I had award-winning public speakers Jeff A.D. Martin and Kwesi Millington as my mentors.

In September 2022, I started my post-secondary studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough in neuroscience, human biology, clinical psychology, and French, all with the hopes of becoming a medical doctor. With the combination of finally returning to the in-person world and working relentlessly on my public speaking and poetry ambitions, my career began to skyrocket. I started meeting celebrities and Grammy-winning artists, receiving offers to be flown out to places I’ve never been before, receiving offers to stay in hotels free of charge, being an actor in a music video, and I’ve even partnered with McDonald’s Canada on a couple of projects (shoutout to my bestie)!

On top of that, I received an invitation to give a keynote speech at Step Above Stigma’s Candid Conversations Coffee House alongside my best friend, Gwen Kuyt, officially making me a keynote speaker.

Of course, all of these events are very thrilling, and I am grateful for each and every opportunity I receive, but the best part of it all is that I feel like the work that I am doing would make my friend who passed proud of me. I believe that if she saw me today and how much I have grown since our conversation, she would be proud.

I still struggle with my mental health and feelings of loneliness from time to time, but I now realize that I have a whole family of supporters who support and share my work.

It’s an honour and a privilege to be in the position that I am in, and I strive to use my newfound platform, my management team, and my vision to fulfill my overarching goal: making an IMPACT in the world that we live in.”

#2 What was the lowest point in your mental health journey?

“I’d definitely say that the heart of my rock bottom was when the pandemic shut everything down back in 2020. I’ve always had a dream of becoming a famous well-known changemaker, so when all of my leadership opportunities were no longer active, and the few leadership opportunities that I applied for rejected me, I felt worthless. This was because I believed that my value was based on fancy titles and material awards. Additionally, I also dealt with the typical struggles of a high school teenager, including FOMO, university woes, and the workload of a pre-med is its own story.”

#3 How did you get through that?

“This may seem delusional, but I started to develop a mindset that I would become notorious, famous, and inspirational regardless of any circumstance in my path. It didn’t matter if there was COVID, rejections from opportunities, or a crippling mental health condition that deprived me of my energy, I told myself that I would become the greatest human being ever at all costs, and I wouldn’t need any co-sign to get there. This approach may seem a bit ambitious, but I truly believe that finding a balance between self-belief and humility can help carry someone very far. I won’t walk around telling people that I’m going to be the best human being of all time, but if I need a pick-me-up, I’ll look into my mirror and affirm myself with these words to fuel the fire that keeps my burning passion for making an IMPACT alive.”

#4 What has changed in your life since you’ve been on this journey?
Awards De-Mario has received for his work as of July 3rd, 2023.

“As I’ve started to invest in my personal ambitions and mental health, I’ve started to see my life become filled with so much goodness. Whether it’s the people that I encounter, the opportunities that come my way, or just my overall well-being, so much good has come into my life since I’ve started to affirm myself. Of course, there have been some major bumps in the road, but these bumps are naturally going to be a part of the journey. After all, every road has its potholes. It’s up to you to determine how you navigate the pathway. Besides, these bumps have made me stronger. They’ve given me the experience that I needed to level up, and I am grateful for both the positive and the negative things that I have encountered in my life since they have helped me reach where I am today.”

#5 Do you have any advice for others who are on their own mental health journey?

“One of the biggest pieces of advice that I can offer to someone on their mental health journey is to find a way to express your feelings through a constructive medium. Whether it’s through verbal conversation, music, or even a poetic/public speaking approach similar to my own, I believe that one of the best ways to navigate through mental health struggles is to find a way to “let it all out.” It’s wonderful to see how ugly emotions can turn into beautiful art pieces or beautiful conversations. You don’t have to exploit your emotions and make an entire career out of them, but it can be very therapeutic to get them out of your system or at least reach out for support.”

#6 What do you wish people understood about what it’s like to struggle with mental health?

“I wish that people didn’t diminish the grief that mental health struggles can inflict on people. There have been times when I went through absolute distress with my struggles, but I was often told that I was overreacting or that I was “too young to be this stressed,” and it made me question if I should feel guilty for not being a happy-go-lucky goofball 24/7. We can never receive first-hand experience in someone else’s shoes, so we should be more accepting and supportive towards people who suffer from mental health struggles.”

#7 Do you have anything else to share with our audience?

“Don’t let anybody else affect your belief in yourself. You don’t need a co-sign from anybody else to prove your worth. Co-sign yourself, and use positive affirmations to remind yourself of how worthy you are. Be your best cheerleader when nobody else is there to cheer you on. You are capable of creating the future that you aspire to have, and you should never let anyone else stop you from pursuing your greatest ambitions. If a buck-toothed kid can make a living for himself starting out with writing depressing verses on lined sheets of paper at 2 am, then you can do anything you want to if you give it your all.”

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