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The Young Advocate: Gunjan Mhapankar, Medicine Class of 2020

Gunjan Mhapankar has a deep interest in international development projects. Having just completed her first year of the Doctor of Medicine Program at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, Mhapankar is passionate about using her skills to instill positive changes to the mental health system and create positive, long-term outcomes for those affected by mental illness. She is channeling this passion into her Global Minds Summer Institute experience and spending three weeks in Kenya working with a team of students and faculty from Western University and Kenya.

In this Q&A, Mhapankar discusses her leadership roles, her excitement to work in Kenya and her desire to foster greater intercultural understandings of mental health.

1) What is your education background and year of study? What other degrees do you hold and where did you complete them?

I hold a Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree from the University of British Columbia, and majored in Microbiology and Immunology. I’m also a graduate of the Pembroke-Kings College Programme, studying neuroscience and cell biology at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

2) Why did you pursue this opportunity with the Global MINDS Summer Institute? What about this international development project caught your attention?

There were two main things about the Global MINDS project that resonated with me and motivated me to pursue this opportunity.

The first was that the guiding principles of the project came from a place of humility and the desire to foster authentic inter-cultural understanding. Successful international development projects must constantly navigate a fine balance between innovation and respecting traditional contexts, power imbalances of international contribution and local project sustainability and creating solutions that both disrupt static notions and are also deliverable. It was evident that this project not only acknowledged these challenges, but also worked to create a culture where they could be addressed and worked within.

The second reason for pursuing this opportunity was the interdisciplinary team led by the Program Director, Dr. Arlene MacDougall. I met with Dr. MacDougall before applying for this project, and given her past experience working within the East African context, as well as her deep personal commitment to contributing toward mental health solutions, I knew we were going to be under good guidance in Kenya.

3) While in Kenya with the Global MINDS Summer Institute you will be working to innovate new mental health solutions in an East African context. What experience (professional or personal) do you have that you think will help you to develop new mental health ideas?

My interest in advocacy and underserved populations emerged from my own personal experiences as a young immigrant in Vancouver in 2010. Since then, I’ve been involved in a variety of leadership and community service related experiences that have prepared me to take on this opportunity with Global MINDS.

As one of only two Canadian recipients of the Queen’s Young Leader Award 2016 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, I am part of global network of more than 240 leaders under the 30 years of age who are taking the lead in their communities and using their skills to transform lives.

I have worked with more than 20 non-profit and community-based organizations across Vancouver and Lower Mainland that address needs of at-risk communities. I was recognized as the co-founder of the Digital Storytelling Project in Vancouver committed to increasing access to essential social support services, by using film to reduce barriers when reaching out for help. As part of the award, I am currently receiving a leadership and global impact training course by the University of Cambridge which will serve as an invaluable resource in my role as a Global MINDS member.

I was also the Canadian Special Delegate and Ambassador at One Young World (OYW) International Summit 2016. OYW is the preeminent global forum for young leaders aged 18-30 and gathers the brightest young leaders from around the world, who have demonstrated leadership ability and commitment to effecting positive change. As the delegate speaker, I addressed an audience of 1,300+ delegates from 196 countries and engaged in a panel discussion about international collaboration to achieve long lasting change.

As the Ontario Political Advocacy Committee (OPAC) Local Initiatives Leader, I recently met with MPP Deb Matthews and MPP Paul Miller with a team of student leaders at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry and Queens School of Medicine to work on lobbying the government to improve access to mental health care in Canada. In this meeting we emphasized the need to address long wait times and adolescent mental health care.

I hope to use all of these local, community and international experiences to help me develop new mental health ideas in Kenya.

4) Why is mental health important to you? What intrigues you about it?

One in five Canadians suffer from mental illness. In Ontario, the burden of mental illness exceeds that of cancer. Awareness about mental health challenges globally is important to me because the first step toward solving any problem is acknowledging that is exists. Cross-cultural collaborations and conversations about mental illness and related disorders such as suicide and depression are important since it validates mental illness as a very real medical disorder rather than a personal failure. It also provides people with an avenue to share information, experiences and how to get help, and it spreads the very important message that you are not alone.

Tackling these issues will require fighting against the stigma, strong political will, and a rethinking of the fragmented nature of mental healthcare delivery. While these are complex challenges, as a medical student, and socially conscious global citizen part of the Global MINDS team, I am convinced that we have the means and capability to make a difference.

5) This project uses a transdisciplinary approach to mental health and brings together students from a wide-range of academic specialities and backgrounds. What do you think you can learn from your peers?

The expertise in the team spans disciplines such as medicine, health and social sciences, education, business, information and media studies and the humanities.  I am excited to learn about different perspectives to mental health solutions, multidisciplinary strategies for research and development, intervention implementation and program results evaluation.

6) What is your ultimate goal that you hope to accomplish during your time in Kenya?

My ultimate goal during my time in Kenya is to learn how to identify complex global health problems, establish smart goals and collaborate with local and international stakeholders to create innovative mental health solutions.

7) What are you most excited to complete or partake in with the Global MINDS Summer institute?

I am most excited to meet the team of Kenyan students and faculty at Machakos Town, as well as all the wonderful staff from the Africa Mental Health Foundation who have helped coordinate this project from Nairobi.

8) Is there anything specific that you hope to experience or encounter while working on mental health solutions in Kenya?

I am particularly interested in learning more about the mental health challenges specific to the East African context. At all levels of income, health and illness follow a social gradient: the lower the socioeconomic position, the worse the health. This difference is especially evident with mental illness due to the challenges of stigma, and cultural barriers. While working on mental health in Kenya, I hope to get an insight on these issues from local student and community leaders and improve my understanding and sensitivity towards global mental health issues.

10) How do you plan to use the information learned on this trip in your academic studies?

Although I am still in the early stages of my medical training, I have a strong interest in mental health and I am actively engaging in opportunities such as this project to explore the prospect of a career in global health in low resource communities.