Carly Whetter, Foundation and Alumni Relations
For Alex Sangha, a Douglas College arts alum, his personal experience with mental health encouraged him to help others.
“I used to be reluctant to speak about my own journey with bipolar disorder,” says Alex. “But as I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve realized sharing my own story is a way to reduce the stigma around mental health. It’s part of the resources I can provide people who are also vulnerable.”
Alex’s goal of helping others has blossomed into a career of activism and fighting for justice. Over the last 30 years, Alex has built a successful career as a social worker, counsellor, filmmaker and speaker. He’s also the founder of Sher Vancouver, a registered charity for LGBTQ+ South Asians and friends in the Metro Vancouver area.
Lights, camera, action
Alex’s activism has permeated his entire career. Most recently, Alex has made the foray into filmmaking and producing two documentary films, My Name Was January (2018) and Emergence: Out of the Shadows (2021), both of which cover topics close to Alex’s heart.
My Name Was January follows the story of January Marie Lapuz. She was murdered in her home in New Westminster in 2012. “As a transgender person who engaged in survival sex work, January didn’t receive the justice she deserved during the trial,” explains Alex. The killer was sentenced to only eight years in prison for the crime, where he claimed self-defense.
January was Sher Vancouver’s Social Coordinator and Alex’s close friend. “I wanted to bring justice to January and remember her as the bright light she was.”
Producing My Name Was January opened the doors to both Alex’s passion for filmmaking and the feature documentary, Emergence: Out of the Shadows, where he was both a producer and a cast member. The documentary follows three individuals, including Alex (credited under his birth name, Amar). They share their experience expressing their sexuality within conservative South Asian families and within the LGBTQ+ community.
“I remember the few times I went to a queer support group and how marginalized I felt in the mainstream queer community. I was the only brown guy there. We had different cultural backgrounds, upbringings and traditions,” says Alex.
Similar to how sharing his own mental health journey connected him to social work, Alex wanted to share his story of coming to terms with his sexuality as a cast member. “It was one of the reasons why I wanted to share the screen with other brown gay people like myself. We didn’t have to explain anything to each other. We had a sense of mutual understanding and acceptance.”
The films received many international awards and recognition and reached others in the LGBTQ+ community who struggled just like Alex did in his youth.
“Films like these create awareness and make people feel welcomed,” says Alex. “I want to continue to create safe spaces in the community.”
Read more: Get ready to snooze: A student’s perspective on the importance of sleep hygiene for mental health
Building a foundation at Douglas
While few people excel in as many different worlds as Alex does, he didn’t know what he wanted to pursue when he first came to Douglas College. Alex credits Douglas with helping him discover his calling toward social work and learning more about himself and his sexuality.
“Douglas College was the best two years of my life,” says Alex. He was able to connect with his peers – including other gay students – through classes and joining the Pride Collective. “I came into myself as a gay man and social work became my mission. I did well in my courses and made life-long friends! It felt like I could do anything.”
Douglas gave him the academic foundation for his lengthy academic journey. After completing his Associate of Arts Degree at Douglas, he went on to earn a Bachelor of Social Work with a First Class Standing (UBC), a Masters of Social Work (Dalhousie University) and Masters in Public Administration and Public Policy (London School of Economics).
Alex traces his broad portfolio of accomplishments back to a single transformative, life-saving experience in his youth, and its memory spurs him forward to this day.
“When I was 19 years old, I was very stressed about my sexuality,” he says. “I wasn’t sleeping, I was literally deteriorating and falling apart. I had a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized. But that’s where I had what I believe to this day to be a profound spiritual experience; I felt an energy leave my body like an out-of-body experience and I saw this amazing light of spiritual energy.”
“Afterwards, I talked to a priest. He said that maybe God was trying to send me a message to love myself. Maybe God was telling me I should do what I wanted with my life.”
Since this epiphany, Alex has worked hard to share the love with others. In 2017, he was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor General of Canada for his service to his community.
“My career – the counselling, social work, filmmaking, social justice – all goes right back to that spiritual experience,” he explains. “It’s my motivation. Whenever I’m feeling down or am struggling, I think about that light and the spiritual connection I had in that moment. And I want to be able to share that feeling of safety with others, too.”
Emergence: Out of the Shadows continues to have community screenings across the Lower Mainland, both in-person and online. Check out the Douglas Student Union events page for upcoming screenings at Douglas.