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Conquering the global burden of mental illness

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By Ciara Parsons, BA'15

Dr. Arlene MacDougall believes that through means of social innovation and transdisciplinary approaches meaningful solutions can be developed to address the rising global burden of mental disorders.  

Mental illness is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide, and is accompanied by a significant gap in accessible treatment options and underlying barriers to care. Low and middle income countries are especially impacted by the negative effects of mental disorders, as up to 85 per cent of people living with mental illness in these regions do not receive treatment.

Dr. MacDougall is passionate about improving the lives of those living with mental illness and has taken action on many fronts, including establishing the Global MINDS Fellowship Program at Western University.

“There are many underlying causes and drivers associated with mental disorders that are inter-dependent—and because of this complexity, we need different approaches in how we make sense of mental illness and ultimately, how we prevent and treat it,” she said. “The Global MINDS Fellowship Program is bringing together people from a wide range of backgrounds in psychiatry, medicine, social sciences, business, education, health sciences, information and media studies, and other disciplines, with the goal of developing and implementing impactful and disruptive solutions.”

In June 2017, Dr. MacDougall, an assistant professor in Psychiatry and Epidemiology and Biostatistics, brought together faculty members and university students from Western University and Kenya for the inaugural Global MINDS Fellowship Program in Machakos, Kenya.  

Explaining why she chose to include both undergraduate, professional and graduate-level students in the program, Dr. MacDougall said, “It is important to help students at all levels to see themselves as change-agents, and realize that they don’t have to wait until they have finished their studies to get involved and lead change initiatives like the projects that they started at the Global MINDS Summer Institute.”

Working in teams, the groups spent two weeks researching and developing solutions for complex mental health system challenges brought forward by local Kenyan community partners.

Some of the initiatives Global MINDS Fellowship students are working on include evaluating ways to mobilize social enterprises to employ people with serious mental illness; establishing an ‘Advocacy Incubator’ with and for people living with serious mental illness, their families and community supporters; starting a family-run educational and support  group in rural areas; and creating a university volunteer network to carryout activities promoting the inclusion of people with mental illness in their communities.   

Not unlike other developing countries, there is a significant lack of human resources available to be allocated to mental health care in Kenya. In Machakos, which is a regional hub for three counties, there is no local psychiatrist for a population of approximately two million people. Dr. MacDougall says the stigma and lack of awareness associated with mental disorders also poses as a large barrier for accessible treatment and care in Kenya.

“The amount of learning, growth and work that the students achieved in such a short period of time was incredible,” she said. “It was a very intensive and immersive experience, and seeing how far they came in terms of understanding really complex issues, coming up with viable solutions in collaboration with the community and then finally pitching their solutions in a really compelling way was truly amazing.”

Teaching the students a ‘mindful approach’ as a means to develop the skills necessary to be a social innovator including self-awareness, mindful listening and openness to multiple perspectives is a key component of Global MINDS’ success says MacDougall. This approach encourages students to think critically about their role in social innovation and evaluate the ‘big-picture’ of wicked systemic problems, such as the global burden of mental disorders.

Though the group returned to Canada in June, the Western and Kenyan University students are continuing to work with their internationals teams to implement and evaluate their solutions in Machakos over the next several months in collaboration with their respective Kenyan community partners. Each of the four teams has Western University and Kenyan faculty mentors.   

Already looking forward to the next iteration of the Global MINDS Fellowship Program, Dr. MacDougall says the 2018 Summer Institute, taking place in London, will be focused on incubating innovative solutions for marginalized populations and under-served communities locally. Several of the inaugural group of students will also return as peer-mentors during the 2018 Summer Institute, as she believes strongly in the power of peer-to-peer teaching and mentorship.

Passionate about shaping today’s learners to be tomorrow’s leaders, Dr. MacDougall believes these students have the power to catalyze disruptive change and create a culture of social innovation that they will take forward no matter what career path they ultimately follow.  

“After this past year, I am convinced more than ever that together we have the ability to address the burden of global mental health,” said Dr. MacDougall.

For more information about the Global MINDS Summer Fellowship program, click here.