A spirit of service leads Goudal to Master of Public Health program

Image of Leo Goudal
By Ashley Rabinovitch

As an undergraduate biology student at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Leo Goudal spent most of his time building his basic science credentials in the lab. But with every passing year, he found himself less drawn to the lab and more drawn to the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, where he volunteered with agencies that tackled mental health and addiction issues within marginalized communities.

Over time, an interest became a calling. And that calling led him to the Master of Public Health (MPH) program at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.

Discovering a passion

Even from an early age, Goudal was drawn to serve the vulnerable. As a student at a high school with a high suicide rate, he helped facilitate workshops in local elementary and middle schools about the consequences of bullying.

From the time he began his degree at UBC, he spent the next five years volunteering with Vancouver Coastal Health in a variety of roles. At UBC Hospital, he served as a recreation volunteer with long-term care residents who experienced mental health issues.

“Long-term care can be an unhappy place for residents, especially when they’re isolated from family,” he remembers. “I was there to provide companionship. That’s what first sparked my interest in mental health.”

Through UBC Hospital, Goudal discovered an opportunity to volunteer on the Downtown East Side in harm reduction, an experience that brought him face-to-face with people suffering from homelessness and the opioid poisoning crisis. Sitting at a kiosk at a community health centre, he provided clean needles, condoms and other safe supplies requested by members of the community. In this role, he received a crash course on the complex relationship between mental health and addiction.

After graduating in May 2020, Goudal put in a stint as a research assistant in a cell and developmental biology lab.

“I realized quickly that I was looking for more social interaction,” he says. “I began to brainstorm ways to combine my research knowledge with what I was learning on my own time in the mental health and addiction space.”

At the same time, he had begun volunteering with crisis line counseling—what he calls “a cornerstone of working in mental health.” In this capacity, he began to notice that the people he referred to social support services faced common barriers to access and navigation. Eager to gain tools that contribute to systemic change, he began investigating Master of Public Health programs across Canada.

Filling in the gaps for Canada’s veterans

The MPH program appealed to Goudal for several reasons. First, he liked that it was a small, course-based program that replicated the interdisciplinary, collaborative world of public health. The degree was also accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health, which made it more transferable. The 12-week MPH Practicum, an opportunity for students to work side-by-side with public health leaders on a defined project, was the icing on the cake.

“Everything about Schulich’s MPH program mirrored the real world,” says Goudal.

Shortly before graduating from UBC, Goudal became an infantry officer in the Canadian Armed Forces. When he moved to London to attend Schulich, he transferred to a new unit. His MPH practicum experience, which he completed at the Atlas Institute for Veterans and Families in the summer of 2022, tied together two major threads of his life: mental health and veterans’ affairs.

On the first day of his practicum in the Atlas Institute’s knowledge mobilization division, Goudal was asked to develop two visual plain language summarizes, similar to an infographic or fact sheet, that summarized reports conducted by the organization at the beginning of the year. The first 90-page report highlighted research gaps and knowledge needs surrounding mental health support for veterans and their families.

“This report explored what people are researching, what’s missing in the research, and what veterans need in terms of mental health support,” Goudal explains. “My job was to translate a complex document into three pages of plain language so that a vet could quickly access and understand key findings.” The second report highlighted the same gaps surrounding mental health resources for public safety personnel and their families.

While Goudal has enjoyed the process of knowledge translation, he hopes to leverage his research background to conduct qualitative research into mental health and addiction challenges, particularly those faced by Canadian veterans.

“Most research on mental health access and provision for veterans comes from the U.S.,” he shares. “There is a longstanding need for research specific to Canadian veterans, who have access to different systems of support, as well as research that is specific to sub-populations, like women and BIPOC veterans.”

Compared to active service members, Canadian veterans typically receive less robust mental health support. Many struggle to explain their experiences to service providers who have little or no knowledge of military life. "Because of my lived experience, veterans find it easier to connect with people like me,” says Goudal.

As he looks forward to progressing in his career, Goudal expresses gratitude for the ways in which his MPH program has provided “steppingstones” to a future role that helps fill historic gaps in research.

“Now, I have on-the-job experience that will translate well to wherever I go next,” he says. “It’s exciting to be in a space that I can see myself in for years to come.”