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Using intercultural approaches to inspire new mental health approaches: Stephanie Huff

Stephanie Huff is a second-year PhD student in Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at Western University. Huff was drawn to the Global MINDS Summer Institute because of her interest in gaining practical experience in mental health initiatives in a global context.

Huff discusses how her experiences at the Global MINDS Summer Institute showed her the power of transdisciplinary and intercultural approaches to problem solving and inspired her to collect data from East Africa for her dissertation research.

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 in my second-year of my PhD studies in Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, specializing in Occupational Science. Previously, I completed both my honors bachelor of arts in Kinesiology and master of science in Occupational Therapy at 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 opportunity with Global Minds because I wanted to gain practical experience in a global health setting, while also learning more about social innovation. These are both fields I would like to explore working in after graduating with my PhD, so I jumped at the chance to be a part of an international development project.

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 worked for three years as an occupational therapist in the community; though my role was not specifically in a mental health setting, mental well-being was a constant factor in the assessment and treatment of my clients. In fact, I think it is so integral for all human beings, regardless of whether they have a mental illness or not. This knowledge, as well as my experience in interviewing clients, was an asset in the Global MINDS Summer Institute.

Why is mental health important to you? What intrigues you about it?
Mental health is important to me because everyone in their life will experience decreased mental well-being at one point or another. I am intrigued by it because it is so often silent and unnoticed.

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?
I feel that I learned a lot from the other students due to the various disciplinary lenses that they viewed the complex challenges with. No two opinions or life experiences were the same and it was particularly rewarding to work with the Kenyan students, who brought diverse cultural perspectives to the table. We really meshed well together and leveraged each other’s strengths; the students with medical and psychology backgrounds could shine with their knowledge and experiences with mental illness, while the students with business and sociology backgrounds could offer unique insight to the conceptualization of sustainability and scalability topics for our innovations.

Reflecting on your experience with the Global MINDS Summer Institute, what is the greatest thing you believe you accomplished while in Kenya?
I think the greatest thing I, in collaboration with my group, accomplished while in Kenya is the solution to our complex challenge question. We created the world’s first advocacy incubator with and for individuals with mental illness. The incubator is a physical and conceptual place for advocacy growth, mental health awareness and stigma reduction.

What is the most exciting activity/event you completed with the Global MINDS Summer institute?
The final pitch event for the summer institute was pretty exciting. Each group had been working so hard for two weeks to come up with their solution and we presented to faculty, community leaders, health care providers, governmental stakeholders and people with mental illness. Hearing that each group was successful in receiving funding to implement their ideas was so exciting!

Now that you are back home, what do you feel you learned? Was there anything you encountered that you weren’t expecting?
Now that I am back home, I can reflect on the experience and I feel that I learned a lot about myself in the process. I learned about what I am capable of and the type of work I would like to do in my career moving forward. I also learned the values of mindfulness, leadership, vulnerability and authenticity.

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.?
Yes, I believe it will steer me in a specific direction both academically and professionally. Next year I will be doing data collection for my dissertation research and I can now affirm that I will conduct my study in East Africa. However, the biggest influence was regarding what I would like to do following my degree completion in 2019. I feel the experience confirmed that I want to work in the field at the grassroots level, either as a global health researcher or consultant and work with NGOs, governmental organizations and local people in low-income countries towards social change.

How do you plan to use the information learned on this trip in your academic studies?
I will most certainly use the connections I established in the trip in my academic studies. The faculty members and team mentors were so knowledgeable and offered great insights. I am particularly keen on utilizing the information I learned about social innovation and will strive towards incorporating this into my dissertation work on women’s health and gender equity in East Africa.