Mental Health

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Vulnerability, Trauma, Resilience and Culture Research Lab heads community-focused research project funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada

To better understand mental health issues faced by Black youth in the National Capital Region and to develop tools addressing the gaps in mental health services, researchers at the University of Ottawa are running a four-year project called Mental Health in Black Communities in the National Capital Region (NCR): Evaluation and Tools for prevention and Intervention. 

“I’ve said this many times before and I’ll say it again. Why is it important to conduct research on mental health in Black communities? Because I’ve seen too many young people with mental health problems suffer,” said assistant professor Jude Cénat, the project’s lead who also runs the Vulnerability, Trauma, Resilience and Culture Research Lab (V-TRaC) at the U of O. 

“Their families and communities didn’t know how to help them and social and health institutions provided care that was ill-suited and not culturally responsive to them.” 

The Public Health Agency of Canada announced back in September that $4.9 million will be awarded to projects through the Promoting Health Equities: Mental Health of Black Canadians Fund (MHBC), of which $799,265 is going to the University of Ottawa’s department of psychology for this particular project.

This project aims to better understand and support the mental health needs of Black youth and their families in both English and French communities in the National Capital Region. Research on the prevalence of mental illness and current patterns of mental health services usage will inform mental health practitioners’ on the necessary development of tools to support communities’ mental health needs.  

Cary Kogan, the director of the Center for Psychological Services and Research at the U of O, and Assumpta Ndengeyingoma, professor at the department of nursing at the University of Quebec in Outaouais, are also working on the project with Cénat.

“We actually started the project in June [of] 2019,” said Cénat. He explained that they had already received funding and started the project last year. This funding was made public in September 2020 by the Government of Canada in relation to the announcement of their $11.5 million commitment to enhance local community support for youth at risk and support more culturally focused mental health programs for Black Canadians.

The project’s first objective is to conduct quantitative and qualitative research to better understand the experiences with mental health issues and mental health care services of Black youth and assess mental health workers’ needs for access to culturally adapted information and tools.

“When I did a meta-analysis of existing literature of depression and substance abuse [in Canadian Black youth], we couldn’t find anything. All the studies on mental health in Black communities were done in the [United] States,” said Emmanuelle Auguste, a Black undergraduate student at the U of O and a research assistant at the V-TRaC Lab.

Since the start, V-TRaC Lab has been collecting data through a questionnaire on the experiences of Black youth between the ages of 15 and 24 with mental health and mental health services. They recruited participants through their social media platforms and research partners. According to Cénat, more than 850 people have participated, making this the largest mental health study of Black youths in Canada to date.

“I really hope these initiatives continue past the end of the four-year project,” said Auguste, one of the first students from V-TRaC Lab involved with campaigns to raise awareness around mental health.

“Mental health issues aren’t talked about enough.”

Cénat and his team will continue to collect data and will launch the qualitative components next year, which will include interviewing mental health professionals to gain a better understanding of the tools needed to better serve youths and families from Black communities.

The second goal is to mobilize, educate, and raise awareness around mental health issues in Black communities and train community leaders on topics related to mental health of Black youths.

Students from V-TRaC lab have launched two initiatives this year — Knowing to Prevent, a social media campaign that shares facts and educational materials on mental health, and Chatting in the City a podcast hosted by Boaz Injege, where he has candid conversations with other Black folks about their lives and the challenges they face.

“I think there’s a lot of stigma,” said Jean-Luc Ducamp, a Rwandese U of O alumni, in the first episode of V-TRaC’s Youtube project Chatting in the City. “It’s not like other communities … where they fully embrace therapy … and they’re like I have these issues, I’m really on these pills … in our community, those things don’t get discussed.”

The third aim is to develop culturally adapted, evidence-based assessments and tools to train mental health professionals to better support Black youth. The first tool developed for mental health professionals was launched earlier this month was a publicly available training program to provide anti-racist mental health care. 

“The care that psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals provide to people in Black communities cannot be non-racist; it must be anti-racist,” said Cénat in his article How to provide anti-racist mental health care.

“Anti-racist mental health care recognizes issues related to racial discrimination and racism and addresses their potential consequences, and the racialized experiences of Black individuals.” 

“We are planning to develop more culturally sensitive training to address specific needs within communities, and to facilitate better care,” said Saba Hajizadeh, the research coordinator at V-TRaC Lab. She states that more tools will be developed based on the data collected from current projects. In addition, results of tools and training programs for mental health professionals will be assessed with follow-up questionnaires after six months.

“To Black students, stay focused on your objectives, goals, and studies. Do not let that noise from the toxic environment deter you from success,” Cénat urged.