Written by: Christine Park
As someone who is always on the move, the phrase “so little time, so much to do” resonates deeply with my daily life. There never seems to be enough hours in a day to make a meaningful difference, especially in a world full of terminally complex problems.
Last year, I took a seminar course called Global Mental Health System Innovation that transformed my perspective of mental health and innovation. My experience with Global MINDS and the opportunity to develop a disruptive solution to a complex problem has stimulated a sense of purpose in me and helped me gain a deep appreciation for the process of social innovation, especially the parts that challenged me the most.
My classmates and I were grouped into four teams that were each partnered with organizations in London to address a complex challenge related to mental health in the local community. My team was partnered with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Middlesex, and we spent the semester collaborating with the Supportive Housing directors to tackle the issue of sustainable housing for young women experiencing homelessness in London. Our project was completed in increments, with weekly presentations of our progress that allowed us to refine our approach and receive insightful feedback from our faculty mentors. We concluded the semester with a final pitch event where each team pitched their final solution to our community partners and affiliated faculty advisors.
I’m so fortunate to have spent a year learning and growing with these incredible, driven people. Smiles of accomplishment (and relief) all around at the completion of our disruptive solutions project at our final pitch event!
The Process of Innovation
One of the first lessons I learned as I took on this challenge is that you cannot rush innovation. We had to allocate a large amount of time to think and sit deeply within the complexity of the problem in order to deconstruct it to its roots and truly grasp the challenges that people suffering from mental illness are faced with everyday. We struggled to come up with a solution that hadn’t been done before, because we were so overwhelmed by the complexity of the problem that we didn’t know where to start. I was so used to moving at such a fast pace that I never understood the value of stagnancy until we were forced to slow down and think carefully about the steps we needed to take to make our goals achievable. We had to narrow down our scope to a specific subset of individuals experiencing homelessness, orient ourselves with small, well-focused goals, and come up with a realistic strategy that would not only bring our ideas to life, but also make them sustainable for the long run.
Breaking away from the norm and stepping beyond conventional solutions was the first challenge. The second was identifying actionable first steps that would eventually lead to the ultimate goals of permanent housing and ending homelessness. We proposed a community-driven program for young women experiencing homelessness to form a sisterhood – a community among themselves where they can share their passions and experiences, become advocates of their independence and mental health, learn essential living skills, and eventually work towards being matched with a surrogate family. We wanted to craft a disruptive solution that would pave a more walkable path to obtaining physical shelter, while providing long-term support and healing throughout the journey.
The Underlying Roots of Mental Illness and the Power of Social Connectivity
The first steps we had taken as we were brainstorming our final solution were embedding ourselves in the context in which we were working and identifying gaps in the current system. The best way to do this was to talk to people in the community who experienced or were still experiencing homelessness and mental illness. Hearing their unique stories helped us realized that there were deeper problems beyond not having a roof over their heads. One of the most impairing consequences of homelessness is loneliness and isolation, because humans are social beings who have an innate need to create meaningful bonds with each other. Our health is dependent on more than just our biology, and the social connectivity that we have with each other is what makes us thrive. Lack of housing leads to the lack of social connectivity, and the feelings of isolation that follow can create a cascade of instability that can become difficult to recover from. Stigma and misconceptions about mental illness make it hard for individuals struggling with mental illness to be seen in a positive light and there is still a severe lack of legislation in mental health worldwide (Wainberg et al., 2017), even though mental disorders are one of the leading causes of disability and poor health globally (WHO, 2017).
I remember blaming many of our roadblocks on the lack of funding, the lack of time, and the lack of resources overall, but as the semester went along, I realized that you can do much with so little. That’s where you truly have to be innovative – you don’t have to create something completely new. One of the most impactful skills I developed through my experience with Global MINDS and the past year as a Global Health Systems graduate student was learning to work with what is given. There may never be enough time or resources, and there will be always be something lacking for a ‘blue sky solution’. But that doesn’t mean making a difference in someone’s life isn’t possible. Sometimes you just need to find a way to reuse what’s in front of you in a way that’s never been used before. There is so much strength in community, and leveraging this for a recovery-oriented approach allows people to utilize the support of their community and help them heal through the power of social connectivity.
The Value of Collaboration and Reflection
I also learned that innovation isn’t possible without collaboration. I learned to be open to multiple perspectives and appreciate all kinds of minds in and out of the classroom. The value of collaborative work comes from working with others, not for them. It meant meeting people where they are and creating a safe, welcoming environment where they can be open about their experiences without the fear of judgment. One of the most inspiring and motivating parts of this project was being able to listen to so many people’s stories, and learning about the unique challenges they faced on their journeys. Allowing ourselves to listen and empathize with people’s lived experiences removed the barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and helped us lead each other by influence and with our actions. There’s certainly great power in numbers, and you can achieve so much as a team with a unified purpose and common goal.
Having the opportunity to be a social innovator in mental health also led me to discover the value of self-reflection. It was through this practice that I was able to remember my experiences vividly, appreciate our accomplishments as well as our setbacks, and actively stimulate my own growth and improve my own mental wellness. It’s become a habit that I practice regularly to this day, and it reminds me that I am human and that there is always room for improvement. Taking time to reflect and practice mindfulness taught me to breathe and take care of myself mentally, no matter how little time there seems to be. Maybe not having enough time was the perfect reason for me to slow down.
I’m truly inspired by the stories I heard through Global MINDS and I’m grateful for the stories that I’m able to tell through my experiences as a global mind. Sometimes the impact you have on those around you isn’t immediately visible, but it all starts with the difference you make in just one person’s life, and telling one person’s story. There is so much suffering in this world, and there are always going to be problems without clear solutions. But you’d be surprised with what you can accomplish with intentional preparation, a hardworking team, and an open mind.
About Christine Park:
Christine completed her Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology and Medical Science as well as her Master of Management of Applied Science Degree (Specialization in Global Health Systems in Africa) at Western University. She currently works as a Postgraduate Research Assistant in the Biology Department at Western and is leading an eLearning initiative on Planetary Health, a transdisciplinary field that encompasses the interdependency between human health and natural systems. Throughout her academic and professional journey, Christine has cultivated her passion in global health and has grown to appreciate systems innovation, particularly in mental health and wellness. Taking the Global Mental Health System Innovation graduate seminar course last year gave her the opportunity to tackle the complex challenge of sustainable housing and work with her peers to develop a disruptive solution for ending homelessness in London in collaboration with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Middlesex. It is her lifelong goal to make a meaningful impact in under-resourced communities and ultimately instill positive change in the field of global health.
About the GMFP SnapShot Blog:
Through the SnapShot Blog, past and current Global MINDS students and Fellows will share insightful and authentic reflections regarding their experiences with the program and their progress of implementing and evaluation their solutions.