This second edition of Featured Advocates Month blog posts is written by Daniel Rivera. Daniel is a recent Life Sciences graduate from Queen’s University. During Daniel's time at Queen's, he had an interest in supporting health on campus and helped lead a long-term student mental health research project at Queen’s in collaboration with Oxford University. Currently, he has taken on the role of President at the Stratas Foundation which supports evidence-based mental health research and early-career researchers. Next, Daniel will be starting his MSc degree at University of Toronto in the fall.
Improving mental health isn’t always straightforward. One size does not fit all and mental health itself is an ever-changing part of individuals and communities. However, there is no a lack of effort amongst the many supporters, leaders, advocates, and other impassioned individuals who strive every day to make sustainable, positive change for themselves or those around them. It was the effort of these unrelenting leaders and resilient individuals that inspired me to get involved with mental health. While no single effort of mine alone holds the key to getting where we want to as a society in terms of mental health, I strongly believe that our combined and diverse efforts will bring us closer to that place. In this post, I’ll share a bit of what I’ve learned about mental health and how I’ve tried to act upon it.
As a university-level science student, you’re supposed to value evidence and research. In the beginning of undergrad, though, I was far more concerned with jotting down everything the professor said. In a way, I took what I was learning for granted, not thinking about how the things we take as fact came to be. I realize now that a bullet point might have taken years, if not decades, of many peoples’ lives to make it to a university lecture slide. And this is also true for mental health care and current knowledge – much of what we know is due to someone, at some point, somewhere, having made the effort to understand mental health better. Somewhat early in my undergrad, I became involved with mental health research wanting to know more about it, having started to really see how it affected those close to me. Three years later, one of the things that I’ve learned is how prevalent mental health problems are among young people. Of course, it isn’t surprising they are at heightened risk for mental health problems, but seeing it in graph form does take you a step back. What really surprised me, though, was when I realized how little we really know about mental health in young people, especially students – what protects their mental health, what challenges it, and how to effectively treat their mental health problems. Compounding this is that while one in five Canadians will experience a mental health problem or illness, costing the economy around 51 billion dollars (yes, billion), only four percent of Canadian public health research funding goes towards mental health. There is certainly a mismatch between what’s needed and what’s currently available. To remedy this, we must invest both effort and dollars to support the kind of research that will lead to more effective and accessible mental health support. This is the way I’ve joined the effort to improve the state of mental health in our communities. Without going into too much detail, I’ve learned more about student mental health and been able to share this research. Importantly, however, I wonder: what will come of all this?
Turning evidence into action is the second thing I want to talk about. A better understanding of mental health through research serves little purpose if not turned into something that can help real people. Some of the research I’ve helped lead seems as though it might actually do so – for that, I’m very excited. Through a collaborative effort, our research group is helping develop things like a new for-credit elective course at Queen’s focused on improving mental health literacy and helping students practice health-promoting behaviours. This course is being designed to help students succeed and improve their health and not just learn x, y, and z. Also in development is an online platform that will provide app-based resources for students to help them manage and increase their awareness of their own mental health symptoms. This is even being further explored as a tool that can supplement clinical care plans for students and make them more effective. As you can imagine, developing, evaluating, and eventually refining these things won’t be easy but, given their potential, they and the research from which they stem were worth it. As I move on in my life as a recent Queen’s graduate, I’ve been looking for ways to continue to turn what researching mental health has taught me into other forms of action. Most recently, I’ve joined a Canadian non-profit – The Stratas Foundation for Mental Health Research. This incredible organization supports the early-career mental health researchers who will shape the future of mental health in Canada by providing them with scholarships to advance their research. It also aims to encourage them to continue in a field were funding is limited, yet more is needed to transform mental health in Canada. Having had a glimpse of what is possible through mental health research, I’m driven to help the organization fundraise to support the discoveries and people that will change mental health care in the future. It was also my exposure to mental health research that helped me look beyond it towards other, more immediate, ways to support the cause. Through volunteering with Telephone Aid Line Kingston (TALK) – a confidential, anonymous, and non-judgemental listening service – I joined a group of passionate volunteers who work hard to make a difference in our community now, especially as it is being challenged by Covid-19. While research had excited me with its potential for the future, it also helped me realize the magnitude of my broader community’s current needs – which TALK works hard to help meet.
This is how I’ve personally decided to help change mental health in my community but it’s not the only way. From Step Above Stigma changing the way we think about mental health, groups focusing on supporting marginalized people’s mental health, or organizations or people lobbying for institutional changes, progress is being pursued on multiple, equally important fronts. And we can’t forget the people who regularly support their friends, peers, or even strangers in times of need – their everyday actions also make an incredible difference. My final thought on all this, I suppose, is to do what you can and what interests you most, no matter how big, small, or unique – together our combined and diverse efforts WILL bring us closer to a mentally healthier and more supportive community. Even if only one step at a time, we can turn our efforts into action and action into change.