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Finding strength in numbers: Tanya E. Benjamin

Tanya E. Benjamin is completing the second year of her PhD in Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at Western University. Benjamin was drawn to the Global MINDS Summer Institute by the opportunity to explore innovative ideas to tackle mental health problems and to work with marginalized communities to improve their well-being.

Benjamin describes how her time in Kenya showed her the immense potential of international collaboration for social change and instilled in her an appreciation for the power of team 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 a second-year PhD student in the department of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, in the field of Occupational Science at Western University. I hold a bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy from Christian Medical College, Vellore, Tamil Nadu, India; and a master of science degree in Occupational Therapy from Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado, United States.  

Why did you pursue this opportunity with the Global MINDS Summer Institute? What about this international development project caught your attention?
I applied to the Global MINDS summer institute program to broaden my foundation and gain relevant knowledge and skills to pursue my vision of working alongside marginalized communities across the globe addressing issues related to health, equity and justice. More importantly, I was excited about the space that we would have to practice creativity and innovation for application in real world contexts.

What experiences do you have related to working with mental health that you believe assisted you in your time spent with the Global MINDS Summer Institute?  
When pursuing my undergraduate degree in occupational therapy, I had numerous clinical placements in the child, adolescent and adult psychiatric rehabilitation center, where I also completed my undergraduate research. The hospital and college where I completed my education had a unique approach to mental health rehabilitation. Families of individuals with mental illness would stay with the patients for months in small residential units with a kitchen so they could learn their roles as a caregiver while the individual with mental illness was receiving rehabilitation services. In addition, my experiences in practice as an occupational therapist in rural India sensitized me to the healthcare needs within a rural, low-resource setting, along with an understanding of community-based rehabilitation and development. These combined experiences helped me better contextualize my knowledge for application within a low-resource Kenyan context, specifically for addressing issues related to mental health.

Why is mental health important to you? What intrigues you about it?
Mental health is a central force driving the well-being of all, and we need to pay attention to it, both for ourselves and for those around us.

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?
There was so much that I took away and hold on to from the two weeks in Machakos. I met talented, smart, intellectual and, most importantly, passionate people persevering towards making the world a better place for all individuals with and without mental illness. I learned about the importance of community from working collaboratively with my team members and I learned that it was okay to dream big because anything is possible.

Reflecting on your experience with the Global MINDS Summer Institute, what is the greatest thing you believe you accomplished while in Kenya?
Developing new friendships with amazing people, like the students from Western University and Kenya, as well as the faculty and community members. I cherish every moment I had with the group in Kenya.

What is the most exciting activity/event you completed with the Global MINDS Summer institute?
I would say the final pitch was an eye opener for me. I was made aware of how far we all had progressed in two weeks. Every single team pitched their unique and innovative ideas to our stakeholders and it was amazing. And to top it all, it was just the beginning.

Now that you are back home, what do you feel you learned? Was there anything you encountered that you weren’t expecting?
I have learnt and continue to learn about the importance of team work. Especially because half our team is in Canada and the other half in Kenya. However, in spite of working together from two different countries, I realize the potential and opportunities that international collaboration brings, both individually and to the work we are trying to carry out.

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.?
I believe that this project was just the beginning and I hope to be continually involved with projects and programs such as this to utilize my skills as a researcher and an occupational therapist to practice social innovation, addressing the needs of marginalized individuals and communities from across the globe.

How do you plan to use the information learned on this trip in your academic studies?
I plan to carry out my PhD dissertation work in low-middle income community based settings, and I will hold tight the learning experiences I carry from the Global MINDS Summer Institute, such as, the importance of embodying cultural humility when working across cultural contexts and, more importantly, the need for working alongside communities when exploring and addressing issues.