Examining Mental Health In University With An Intercultural Lens

In January, we developed a workshop on Mental Health from an Intercultural Perspective. This post is a reflection of the workshop and is written by Dela Hini.

What do you think of when you hear the words “mental health”. Do you imagine a leather clad sofa in a dusty psychiatrist’s office? Or do you think of your mom, your cousin, and your best friend who all struggle with some form of mental health related issues? Over the years our perceptions of mental health and what we’re taught about it has changed. There was a time when talking about mental health was completely taboo, but programs like Bell’s Let’s Talk are challenging that stigma. Still, there are spaces and cultures in which mental health is not heard of. In fact, in the Ewe language, which is spoken by the people of the Volta Region in Ghana, there is no word for depression. The closest thing we have to it is a phrase that means “thinking too much”. What then do cultures and society tell us about mental health and how it should be approached? Earlier this semester I had the opportunity to partner with the Intercultural Development Program to lead a workshop titled “Exploring Mental Health Through An Intercultural and Intersectional Lens”. Here I’ll share my findings, my story, and the stories of others before me.


Imagine the year is 1956 and you’re in your first university lecture. You take your seat at the front of the class, careful to not get in anyone’s way. Once you’re settled in, you glance around the room to find a friendly face. Your eyes fall on the most charming individual you’ve ever seen! The person has bright brown eyes, dark auburn hair, and a warm smile directed toward you. They start to open their mouth as though to say hello, but you turn your head before they can speak. With blushing cheeks, you open your notebook and hope that these feelings pass, because you’re a young man from a small town in the Lower Mainland, and it’s not right to find other young men attractive.


Before we had Pride Resource Centres and positive spaces, individuals who identified as members of the LGBTQ+ community were viewed as being plagued with some form of mental illness. In fact, homosexuality was once deemed a result of “sociopathic personality disturbance” by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It wasn’t until 1973 that this was changed officially, but even in 2018 such beliefs continue to influence individual and collective views of homosexuality. In Ghana, and many countries around the world, homosexuality is still perceived as a crime, punishable by jail time or even death. From this we see that many societies have a habit of villainizing that which is “different” and mislabeling what they don’t understand. Such actions are dangerous, because they enact violence on those who are viewed as “deviants”, thereby misrepresenting realities of identity and underrepresenting genuine mental illness. What then does it say about society’s approach toward homosexuality and mental health? It says that every Canadian has their own unique understanding of sexuality and gender identity, which is a reflection of their lived experience and a much greater collective cultural background. Thus, we all vary in our capacity to give space to others and in our willingness to learn. With that, not everyone will be able to meet the mental health needs of LGBTQ+ community members, due to these underlying unconscious biases. As a result, members of the LGBTQ+ community often struggle to access mental health resources that don’t impose heteronormative and patriarchal views.


Another area in which mental illness is often highly stigmatized or overlooked can be found in the experiences of racialized Canadians, immigrant persons in Canada, and Indigenous peoples. Quite often, immigrant Canadians are coming from countries in which they were the majority, whether it’s ethnically, religiously, or politically. In addition to processing culture shock, these individuals then have to process being racially, religiously, or politically ostracized for (potentially) the first time in our country. In this way, Canadian immigrants experience unique struggles related to physical and mental isolation and loss of community. Quite often immigrants are not aware of their health care rights, and existing resources, due to being new to the system. For this reason, many immigrants who suffer from mental health and other health concerns do not exercise their right to demand a referral, seek a second opinion, or even challenge problematic health care practices. We as Canadians are therefore called to do more to ensure that those coming from abroad are able to enjoy the same privileges in our health care system that we’ve come to appreciate. Likewise, Canada still has a long way to go in terms of our treatment of Indigenous peoples. Due to a lack of access to resources and a long colonial history of oppression, many Indigenous communities are plagued by physical and mental health issues. In these ways, Indigenous peoples continue to be displaced, underrepresented, and unheard. Our standard, “Canadian”, mental health care system must be re-evaluated in order to consider the variety of cultural backgrounds and identities that exist in our borders. The medical practice is moving toward more personalized medicine, and with advances in mental health research, hopefully society will shift toward treatments that can better suit individual needs.



“definitions belong to the definer” – Toni Morrison



For roughly 7 years I’ve struggled with major depression and anxiety. Of the many symptoms that I’ve endured, my least favourite is the insomnia. Before, it was a product of habit, now it’s a product of the very medication that I take to stabilize my mood. So Dela, what do you do with all of your time at night, you may wonder. Well, I study, read, write poetry, binge on Netflix, or lay in bed with puffy eyes, wondering when I’ll fall asleep. Then, usually around sunrise, my body becomes so physically exhausted that I finally give in to my tiredness and get my three hours of sleep a day. It’s really not as bad as it sounds- at least the last thing that I see before I close my eyes are streaks of pink and orange dancing across the sky. By the time I wake up, I’ve probably missed a lecture, or I’m running late to one. Missing class or being late because of my mental health and medication used to fill me with shame. However, now that I’m investing in my self-care, I’ve come to realize that it’s not my fault, because I’m trying my best, and that simply getting out of bed at all is a huge victory.


I have a friend who goes to the University of Calgary who was recently diagnosed with ADHD. When she received the diagnosis, it was like the weight of the world was taken off of her shoulders, because finally there was something to explain her sporadic thought process, difficulty focussing, and tendencies to be hyperactive. As we chatted about it over the phone, we were both incredibly excited to uncover who we really are, now that we’re medicated and our brains are no longer on fire.




…Though I would have never believed it as a teenager, you do move beyond things, outgrow the person you were.


Sometimes, just by staying alive, you find you have become someone who can live in the world after all


-          Evelyn Lau



One of my professors and good friends, Joanne Cockerline, once said that “it’s important to deconstruct medical definitions of what outlines normal, abnormal, or deviant behaviour”. This is because the way that we see the world is shaped by a historical discourse that is riddled with misinformation, stereotypes, and oppression. Joanna said it best when she mentioned that “words can be a form of violence because it is through language and media that harmful cultural beliefs are perpetuated, and therefore take root to stifle our understanding of our fellow person”. As yourself: What is it that you’re believing right now about someone else that is based on misinformation; How can you challenge that, check your understanding, and maybe even be an ally?


A few tools to carry moving forward:



Find a confident- it’s important to have

Ease into vulnerability

Meet yourself where you are



Check your biases and expectations

Know that everyone is moving at their own pace

Be aware of the emotional labour that you are taking on

Meet them where they are