MD grad advocates for mental wellness across his community

By Natalie Ebel

For Andrew Nguyen, the importance of mental health cannot be overstated. And when mental health struggles affected his own family, he committed himself to making a meaningful change.

As a second-generation Vietnamese Canadian born to refugee parents, Nguyen grew up with next to nothing. After his family immigrated to Canada and faced hardships assimilating, he watched as some of his close relatives struggled with mental illness. Following a personal loss related to addiction and chronic medical conditions, Nguyen realized that much of his family’s suffering could have been prevented or treated had they received early access to culturally informed medical care and mental health counseling.

It was this realization that inspired Nguyen to pursue his Doctor of Medicine (MD) at Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry-Windsor Campus and a career where he could combine his interests in learning about the human body, develop his clinical knowledge, and advocate for marginalized populations. 

Nguyen has done exactly that.

As he graduates from Schulich Medicine & Dentistry today and prepares for a career in Psychiatry, Nguyen has proved himself to be a true advocate for mental health within the School’s London and Windsor campuses, as well as for his Vietnamese community, for his family, and – soon – for his patients.

In this Q&A, read more about Nguyen’s inspiring journey.

Can you share with us what motivated you to become an advocate for mental health?

Growing up, my close relatives had difficulty coping with trauma after immigrating from a war-torn Vietnam as refugees. My family struggled financially and were constantly working to make ends meet and often repressed a lot of their emotions in pursuit of a better life. After getting involved with the Vietnamese Students’ Association of Eastern Canada as the co-president, I soon realized these experiences were predominant among the Vietnamese community. These lived experiences, coupled with a formative practicum at a rural Vietnam hospital during my Master of Global Health program, highlighted the profound impact of mental health stigma on psychiatric patients. Additionally, working as a behavioural support worker a couple years before starting medical school reinforced my understanding of these issues. These experiences inspired me to start a mental health summit within the Vietnamese community to foster dialogue about mental health and promote healthy wellness strategies.

What led you to join the Schulich Peer Support Program (SPSP)?

Starting medical school during the pandemic was a difficult experience for myself and my peers. With most of our curriculum shifting online, it became hard to connect in person. In the past, I found solace in peer connections and promoting wellness and wanted to continue fostering this positive environment at the School. As a result, I co-founded the Schulich Mental Health & Wellness Community with Windsor campus peers to provide opportunities for classmates to meet outside of small group learning and establish a check-in support system. These peer social circles successfully fostered a sense of community at the Windsor campus. However, I noticed that many peers across the broader Schulich campus felt isolated, as reflected in anonymous social media messages and feedback from student wellness representatives. Inspired by Zach Weiss's, MD’22, idea for a Schulich-wide initiative to connect struggling peers with supporters, I joined forces with Dental Leads Brittany Pollock and Troy Chow to lay the foundation for the Schulich Peer Support Program (SPSP).  

What were some of your key responsibilities in your role as Medicine Lead for SPSP?

Starting the inaugural SPSP together with Zach, Brittany, and Troy as one of the Medicine Leads, my initial responsibility was to help lay a sustainable foundation for the program. We collaborated with faculty from the Learner Experience Office (LEO), managed the logistics of recruiting peer supporters, and provided training through workshops and exercises. Additionally, we established a system to match peers with supporters based on shared experiences or immediate availability. Our goal was to create a comprehensive peer support program with the hope of reducing the stigma of seeking help, promoting help-seeking behaviour, easing the strain on professional counseling resources, providing early proactive support, and facilitating referrals to other support services like LEO.

Can you tell us about any experiences or mentors that have helped you develop your leadership skills?

One experience that helped me develop my leadership skills was during my Vice President Internal term on the Hippocratic Council. This leadership position involved supporting student health and wellbeing by providing support and resources. I also served as a chair of the Student Affairs Committee (SAC), alongside liaising with LEO. This experience was particularly memorable as I was concurrently the Medicine Lead for SPSP and worked closely with Dr. Sandra Northcott, associate dean of LEO, in both spaces. Throughout our encounters, Dr. Northcott was always transparent, honest, and passionate, and I appreciated how she would constantly check in with the SPSP group and advocate for our mental wellness. She was the type of mentor who gave space for everyone in a meeting to speak, and I was able to develop strategies for engaging others during meetings, which ultimately led to more holistic decision making.

Can you tell us more about the psychiatry program you've been matched into?

I was thrilled when I found out that I was accepted to the University of Toronto’s (UofT) Psychiatry program. I did a fourth year visiting elective at UofT in Transplant Consult Liaison (CL) Psychiatry and had a lot of exposure to CL Psychiatry in general throughout my clerkship and elective experiences. CL psychiatry focuses on the care of patients with comorbid psychiatric and general medical conditions.

How has your experience at Schulich helped you achieve your goals?

My experience here has been a rollercoaster as a first generation, non-traditional medical student. Transitioning back to school after a few years of working was challenging, especially from being inundated with the heavy workload of medical school and navigating the hidden curriculum – unspoken lessons, values, and perspectives students learn through their school experiences. Despite these struggles, Schulich Medicine & Dentistry provided me with ample opportunities to develop my leadership skills, where I met mentors, supportive faculty, and peers who helped me through difficult times. Being at the Windsor campus allowed me to enhance my clinical skills through one-on-one interactions with my preceptors. Graduating with a medical degree, I not only gained the knowledge, but also confidence, thanks to the unwavering support of staff, faculty, and peers.

Being at the Windsor campus allowed me to enhance my clinical skills through one-on-one interactions with my preceptors.

--Andrew Nguyen

How do you hope to make an impact in your field?

Training to become a psychiatrist means a lot to me, as I hope to learn the skills necessary to progress within the fields of CL Psychiatry and Addictions Medicine. Despite many efforts to reduce mental health stigma, it largely remains prevalent, especially among marginalized populations. By being a voice for my immediate Vietnamese community, I hope to create accessible, culturally competent care for newcomer health and people in these spaces. There is so much we currently do not understand about the human psyche, which makes psychiatry such a fascinating field. My goal is to better understand the interplay between psychiatric illness and comorbid medical conditions, thereby leading to more holistic patient care. Most importantly, I am committed to mentorship, with the hope of inspiring the next generation of psychiatrists.

What is something you want people to know about you?

I am a lover of all kinds of food, something that is deeply rooted in my Vietnamese heritage and a powerful means of communication. Growing up, my parents struggled to assimilate into Canadian culture after escaping the Vietnam war. Sharing home-made Vietnamese dishes was a way for my parents to communicate their appreciation and love when language barriers stood in the way. For me, food has always symbolized comfort and it is through food that I learned about my family’s resilience through adversity and cultural identity. Food has become more than nourishment — it’s become a gateway to understanding personal narratives and getting a glimpse of someone’s culture. My love for food goes beyond taste — it’s about fostering community, finding common ground, and learning from each other. If you’re a foodie like me, I would love to chat over a bite.