New project brings BIPOC mental health into the spotlight
People who are Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) experience worse mental health outcomes – such as higher levels of anxiety and involuntary stays in mental health institutions – and have a harder time accessing mental health services. Racialized and newcomer populations may face a number of issues when accessing care, such as language barriers, stigma, systemic racism, and a lack of culturally competent providers.
To connect communities with the supports they need, the BIPOC Community Mental Health Ambassadors project is bridging the gaps between people and services. Launched over the summer, the project is led by Sherbourne Health in partnership with a committee of agencies: Progress Place, Loft Community Services, Inner City Family Health Team and The Corner.
The initiative trains ambassadors – downtown east Toronto residents who are Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) – and provides the knowledge and tools to connect with their neighbours to raise awareness and offer resources around mental health. Ambassadors make weekly rounds in the neighbourhoods of St. James Town and Moss Park, both as individuals and in groups. So far, the project has hired 10 ambassadors who have served more than 450 residents.
When local resident Gaspar joined the program as the lead ambassador, he knew he wanted to bring his lived experience into the position. Two years ago, the loss of a family member due to a lack of mental health care in Angola deeply affected him and now drives him to help others overcome internalized cultural stigma.
“Mental health is something some communities don’t talk about, it’s a big elephant in the room,” says Gaspar.
Gaspar talks to people on the street and in his apartment lobby, connecting them to mental health resources and acting as an active listener. By active listening, Gaspar makes them feel fully heard by listening carefully and responding appropriately. While many are happy to chat about mental health with a friendly face, others still treat mental health as a taboo subject.
“A lot of people may not want to talk about it right away, they think having challenges with mental health means someone is lazy. So, before I even start talking about mental health, I try to get to know them and understand them,” says Gaspar.
He notes that when people start to share their personal stories or worries about issues like financial stress and affordable housing, they realize over chatting with him that they may require mental health support.
Divya, a fellow ambassador, reaches out to people on her morning commutes. She also finds that this direct, on-the-ground form of engagement can remove stigma and spread awareness. As a South Asian woman, Divya finds that she is able to connect with other women with similar backgrounds and experiences, such as being a recent immigrant to Canada.
“A lot of the time, people just want to talk. They want someone to hear about their difficulties and describe the positions they’re in,” Divya says. “Older generations may share stories where they go through pain, but will not use the language of mental health because they haven’t heard it in their country.”
Nadjib Alamyar, Sherbourne Health’s program manager of Capacity Building Initiatives, says that this project helps break the communication gap between providers and service users, as jargon and medical distrust may prevent people from reaching out. Talking about the connections between the social determinants of health such as food security, housing and harm reduction, and mental health help with reducing the stigma. Increasing connections and decreasing social isolation are tangible outcomes of the project
Ambassadors taking initiative
When Gaspar noticed some ambassadors felt nervous approaching strangers, he decided to ask if they would want to do outreach as a team. Thanks to his idea, the ambassadors now meet on Sundays in the Sherbourne Health parking lot to start their group outreach.
Other ambassadors have also taken initiative in shaping the project, by researching resources for their flyers or translating for others.
To better understand what people’s mental health needs were, the ambassadors created an electronic survey that was taken by 359 people through a link. The ambassadors found that the surveys helped take a pulse check of how communities were doing, as well as served as a gateway for opening up.
“Some people do not want to verbally tell someone about their mental health, but they will fill out a survey and share how they feel,” says Divya.
From the survey, Sherbourne Health learned that employment, housing, and finances were three of the biggest issues affecting residents, and that residents wanted to see more workshops and mental health chats in their areas. These results will be presented in an open workshop by the ambassadors later this year. The project’s next steps include trainings for the ambassadors, expanding the areas the project services, and hiring more participants.
Employment, financial strain, lack of affordable housing, isolation, and substance use are major issues affecting community mental health, the survey indicates.
For Divya, the program has helped her become more outgoing and as a PhD student, further her knowledge in the healthcare field that she hopes to enter.
“If I feel shy, I tell myself to take it one step at a time. I’m there to help,” she says. “If I can communicate with someone and they can smile, that makes me feel good.”
The BIPOC Community Mental Health Ambassadors project is generously supported by Janssen Inc. To contact the program for information or to reach an ambassador, email email@example.com