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Applying a global lens to mental health issues: Richelle Bird

Richelle Bird is a School and Child Psychology PhD student at Western University. She was interested in the intercultural learning and transdisciplinary opportunities that the Global MINDS Summer Institute offered.

Bird discusses how her time in Kenya helped her to better understand the stigma of mental health, the extensive complexity of mental issues globally and how these experiences will serve to enrich her academic and professional work.

What is your education background and year of study? If applicable, what other degrees do you hold and where did you complete them?
I am going into the second year of my PhD in School and Child Psychology at Western University. I also hold a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Guelph and a master’s in Counselling Psychology from Western University.

Why did you pursue this opportunity with the Global MINDS Summer Institute? What about this international development project caught your attention?
I pursued this fantastic opportunity with Global MINDS to further expand my experience and understanding of intercultural psychology and mental health, which I have a long-standing fascination with. Over the course of my academic career I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to conduct intercultural research, including looking at acculturation patterns in immigrant youth and the experiences of First Nations foster parents. These experiences have fuelled my interest in conducting intercultural research, specifically with a focus on mental health. Global MINDS provided a fantastic avenue to further pursue these research interests and strength my understanding and appreciation for the unique caveats of this field of research.

What experiences (professional or personal) do you have related to working with mental health that you believe assisted you in your time spent with the Global MINDS Summer Institute?  
I feel that my educational background in psychology helped prepare me for the Summer Institute. Additionally, through practicum work, as well as professional work experience, I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with a wide variety of individuals seeking mental health services. I think my experience and ability to work with diverse groups of individuals was an asset in the current project.

Why is mental health important to you? What intrigues you about it?
Mental health plays an integral role in all aspects of our lives and is closely tied to our perceptions and experience of the world around us. Mental health challenges, or poor mental health, can be detrimental to our functioning and quality of life. For me, the profound impact that mental health has on people’s lives has always been interesting, but what I find the most intriguing is the role that resiliency plays in shaping individual experiences of mental health concerns. It is this innate resiliency that captivates me and drives my interest in pursuing this field of study.

This project uses a transdisciplinary approach to mental health and brings together students from a wide-range of academic specialities and backgrounds. What lessons/insight do you feel that you learned from the other Western University students participating in the Global MINDS Summer Institute?
The global burden of mental health is complex and extensive, thus no one discipline or profession can hope to effectively generate a solution alone. Through working with other students in the Summer Institute both from Western University and Kenyan universities I was truly able to gain a deeper, more comprehensive appreciation of the nature of this challenge and the cultural context in which it is embedded. Understanding the views and perspectives from different disciplines, different sets of experiences and specifically having that cultural insight were invaluable in creating our solutions.

Reflecting on your experience with the Global MINDS Summer Institute, what is the greatest thing you believe you accomplished while in Kenya?
For myself, the process of coming together as a team, integrating our experiences and expertise and working together to passionately address the challenges we were presented with was our greatest accomplishment.

What is the most exciting activity/event you completed with the Global MINDS Summer institute?
Travelling around to the various sites in Machakos and meeting our partners, champions, patients, families and other stakeholders was incredibly exciting and inspiring. Seeing a leopard and hippo at Nairobi National Park was also pretty fantastic.

Now that you are back home, what do you feel you learned? Was there anything you encountered that you weren’t expecting?
I am currently still in Kenya, but reflecting on my learning I think after the time spent at the Summer Institute I now have a more complete and accurate understanding of the challenges of promoting mental health initiatives in low-middle income countries, as well as the pervasive impact of stigma. I think prior to arriving in Kenya, I didn’t fully understand or expect the stigma and misinformation surrounding mental illness to be so embedded within the culture.

How do you think this project will influence your “next steps”? (EX: Do you think it will steer you in a specific direction academically, professionally, etc.?
Upon completing the Summer Institute, student teams are expected to implement their proposed solution. This is expected to be implemented within the next year and will be a shift in focus from the other research projects I will be involved with. On a broader level, this experience has shifted my understanding of the complexity of mental illness across cultures and brought to light the importance of maximizing the resources and strengths of individuals, families and communities to best support people with mental illnesses.

How do you plan to use the information learned on this trip in your academic studies?
Participating in the Global MINDS Summer Institute was truly a life changing experience. The information and experiences gained during my involvement will forever be carried forward with me in all academic and professional pursuits. The importance of shifting previously held beliefs, being open to new ideas and working together tirelessly and optimistically despite challenges will be the specific lesson I will draw upon as I complete my academic career.