Transforming Mental Health for Equity Deserving Groups: One Gathering at a Time

May 11, 2023

Elaina Buenaventura (they/them) is a queer, Filipinx settler on the traditional and unceded territories of the Stó:lō, šxʷməθkʷəy̓əmaɁɬ təməxʷ (Musqueam), Stz’uminus, Qayqayt, and səl̓ilwətaɁɬ təməxʷ (Tsleil-Waututh) peoples. They recently graduated with a Bachelor of Arts with a major in psychology and a minor in dialogue. As the documentation lead for the Cross-Cultural Mental Health: Research and Practice Forum, they gifted us with reflections about the forum and the importance of cross-cultural considerations and practices.

As a psychology student, the research I learnt about in psychology courses rarely mentioned any cultural diversity that diverged from being White, heterosexual, in the gender binary (i.e., man or woman), and in the West. In this way, I often felt some sort of distance between myself and what I was learning, which led me to a question – are there spaces where community leaders from equity-deserving groups (EDGs) are sharing resources for clients from EDGs? Surely enough, this Cross-Cultural Mental Health Forum held in the SFU’s Surrey SYRE building felt like it was that space. Community organizations and groups, graduate students, research assistants, and community members gathered to explore what cross-cultural mental health could mean. Particularly, how we might transform current mental health practices and services that embrace cultural diversity. Four key messages stood out to me. 

Recognizing intersectionality was the first message. Heather Lynch, the Senior Manager of Options Community Services Society  reminded us that Intersectionality, coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, describes how our different life events and identities intersect to create diverse outlooks and experiences throughout our life. Culture is a part of ourselves as individuals and as communities. During Dr. Farooq Naeem’s keynote on the culturally adapted cognitive behavioural therapy (CaCBT) for Canadians of South Asian origin, the distinctions he described between Western beliefs (e.g., time is linear) and Eastern beliefs (e.g., time is cyclical) offered the idea that Westernized therapies like CBT may not be culturally appropriate for clients with Eastern cultural backgrounds. The CaCBT research team discovered that Canadians of South Asian origin were more satisfied and reported feeling a stronger therapeutic alliance with therapists who implemented CaCBT compared to standard CBT, regardless of the therapist’s own race and ethnicity. Furthermore, developing a sense of cultural competence in mental health services is rooted in having an awareness of one’s own and others’ culture. Respecting cultural differences and making slight changes approaching clients is of utmost importance to competency. In recognizing our own cultural intersections, we can begin to understand and adapt to others’ cultural intersections that can result in trust. 

Secondly, we need to be aware of other systems that influence mental health. In chatting with Gary Thandi, the Executive Director of Moving Forward, I’ve noticed that mental health practitioners wear many hats. They are on the frontlines delivering mental health services and on multiple engagement platforms (e.g., social media, television, news outlets) raising awareness about mental health – which significantly strengthens a sense of credibility and trust for mental health services and programs. In other words, if there’s more awareness in different systems, this could reduce stigma. Another important recognition from both the event panelists and event attendees is the influence of socio-economic systems, particularly within non-profit organizations that rely on grant funding for service delivery. According to Tania Bakas, a Counselling Psychology graduate student at SFU, when funding practices don’t align with mental health service and program needs, service providers become burnt out and perpetuate the hamster wheel of crisis-based care: catching up to survive instead of thriving. How can we move away from offering solely crisis-based care?

Thirdly, we can uplift local knowledge. Jshandeep Jassal, a co-founder of Let Her Talk amongst many other mental health initiatives for and with diverse racialized groups in Surrey, spoke strongly about how providing leadership opportunities for community members from EDGs is key to creating pathways for communities to meet their needs. Going to organizations that deliver services for and disseminate resources about diverse cultural needs like the Umbrella Multicultural Health Co-op and the National Newcomer Navigation Network (N4) was recommended by Dr. Nancy Clark, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Human and Social Development, School of Nursing, at the University of Victoria, and Dr. Masahiro Minami, Associate Professor in the SFU Faculty of Education. Lastly, emphasizing program and service evaluation recognizes the need for evidence-based work that’s informed by what communities say. Data are stories and needs that can be collected in various forms from surveys to art.

The fourth and most captivating message: we need to work together. All panelists spoke about the importance of collaboration and interdisciplinary work towards knowledge mobilization, integration, and dissemination into the community. By being able to connect with local service providers from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Moving Forward, OCS, MOSAIC, Fraser Health’s South Asian Health Institute, Surrey-North Delta Division of Family Practice, Fraser Region Aboriginal Friendship Centre Association, Foundry Surrey, and various graduate students interested in understanding and supporting EDGs felt exciting and hopeful. As Kwantlen First Nation members Kevin and Michael shared with us at the beginning, we all have gifts to offer when we recognize each other in the circle – no one is better than the other. We are stronger together.

As a whole, the space felt connected knowing that culture – whatever that meant to all of us – was front and center: nothing to hide nor deny, but something to be shared and deserving of attention. Having the privilege to attend this forum inspired me with a sense of belonging in the field of mental health. My ancestors were in the room with me. This forum recognized that mental health services and systems aren’t currently sustainable for service providers or clients for EDGs. We need to make more space for transformative and preventative care. There’s a long way to go, but at least we’re journeying together – one gathering at a time.