Warning: This story mentions alcohol abuse and suicide and may be upsetting to some readers.
A Salmon Arm man has taken it upon himself to help others find their ‘why.’
Justin Brien is a mental health advocate, inspirational speaker and life coach who is dedicated to helping people fight their inner battles and strengthen their mental fortitude.
Brien grew up in Salmon Arm, struggling with self-worth and confidence from a young age, saying he sought validation from other people and wasn’t happy with himself. Brien said he would act out, people pleasing and being the ‘funny man’ in social settings because he wanted to be anybody but himself.
After high school, Brien started drinking alcohol, which gave him insecurities but helped him feel real. When he moved to Victoria and got into playing junior hockey, his drinking intensified. As his hockey career continued into its third year, he sustained several concussions and was let go from the team to prioritize his health and safety.
“That’s the start of where I really started to struggle with mental health,” said Brien. “Looking back, that’s when I should have gotten professional help, but I didn’t.”
Brien then moved to Vancouver and became a bartender, entrenched in the party scene.
“From there it took off. I did drugs for the first time at 24, and a buddy said to me, ‘You were funny that night.’ That stuck with me, that was like my super power.”
Four years later, Brien found himself back in Salmon Arm and met the woman who would have his first child, a son. Things were spiraling at that time, said Brien, and she ended up leaving him after six months as his drinking got worse and he started to have suicidal thoughts and occasional actions. He said he registered to be an organ donor during this time as he didn’t think he deserved to live any longer.
January 4, 2019 was a memorable day for Brien. It’s the day he realized he had to check himself into the hospital or his son would grow up without his biological father. He did, received treatment, and landed a job at Mr. Mike’s, moving from bartender roles into management over the last three years. Brien left the service industry in September 2022 to focus on his coaching career. He is now the company’s mental health liaison, helping employees at 12 Mr. Mike’s locations by hosting his programs and being available for one-on-one coaching.
Asked how he could work at a bar after being an alcoholic for so many years, Brien said he has a changed mindset.
“I know where I was, I know where I am and I know where I’m going.”
Brien now speaks to schools, volunteer organizations, businesses and sports teams, and holds support groups and retreats for different clientele.
He said being able to give back to a world he took so much from is what inspires him.
“People had to change their lives to cater to me, and now I get to help, inspire and encourage others to become stronger versions of themselves.”
He has overcome new challenges. His young daughter, who was born with Down syndrome, needed heart and intestinal surgery and suffered from colitis in hospital. Despite hardships like this, Brien said he is able to remember his ‘why.’
“The importance of finding your ‘why’ and making it your anchor is everything,” he emphasized. “Grab hold of it and take it with you everywhere.”
Brien’s book, Chasing Shadows: Fighting the Monster Within, will be available soon and information is available at justinbrien.com. Also on the website are details about the one-on-one Stronger You Project and the 10-week Awaken Warrior men’s program starting April 17.
Brien is one of the keynote speakers for the WorkBC Shuswap Inclusive Seminar & Job Fair, taking place Tuesday, April 18, at the Prestige Harbourfront Resort in Salmon Arm.