Mental health for all: A pan-Canadian project to better serve youth in Black communities

Posted on Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Portrait of Jude Mary Cénat

The evidence is clear: stigma, racism and discrimination are major risk factors for developing depression. “Symptoms of depression steadily rise depending on the level of discrimination that people experience,” says Jude Mary Cénat, the director of uOttawa’s Vulnerability, Trauma, Resilience & Culture (V-TRaC) Research Laboratory. 

“In fact, everyday racial discrimination is a key factor that explains depression in members of Black communities,” explains the doctor and associate professor of psychology whose research focuses on the disparities of race-based treatments in mental health care. 

His current research project, Black Communities Mental Health in the National Capital Regioninvolves creating mental health resources that accurately reflect the realities of Black youth. 

With funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada, he and his team at V-TRaC are developing assessment, prevention and intervention tools that meet the real needs of individuals and communities. 

How the project started 

When Jude Mary Cénat joined the Faculty of Social Sciences in 2018, he began by meeting with community stakeholders. He wanted to better understand the needs of the Black communities living in the Ottawa-Gatineau region, and what resources were available to them. 

Many stakeholders reported major shortcomings — including hospitals. Their resources weren't created to respond to the cultural and social realities of all patients. 

I started putting together proposals to see with community organizations what we could implement,” says Dr. Cénat. “I also talked to many mental health workers to identify specific needs that we could address.” 

This gave rise to the project, the benefits of which are a step forward in helping young Black people to thrive.

Portrait of Jude Mary Cénat

The project’s three main objectives 

1. Evaluation. Understanding the role and impact of individual, social and cultural factors on the mental health of young people from Black communities. 

The V-TRaC team first conducted a pan-Canadian survey of youth aged 15 to 24. 

This is the first time that a study has collected so much data from Black communities in Canada,” says Dr. Cénat, who is preparing a second, even more extensive data collection for the fall. 

They found that everyday racial discrimination increased the rate of depression in people from Black communities. Moreover, young people are often reluctant to seek help, for fear of facing racist interventions in the health care system. 

2. Prevention. Mobilizing and raising awareness of mental health issues in Black communities. 

The project seeks to raise awareness and destigmatize mental health within Black communities. 

As part of the Knowing to Prevent campaign, the V-TRaC team is reaching out to community leaders, including pastors, priests and imams, feminist groups, sports organizations and school principals. It offers them meetings, workshops and training about mental health and suggests ways to address psychological well-being among young people. 

“We want to help strengthen communities, first by working with those who have a role to play in destigmatizing mental health problems,” says Dr. Cénat. “These are the people who are close to young people, who give advice and who build trust.” 

V-TRaC has also launched Chatting in the Citya new podcast series that provides families, leaders, community associations and young people with the tools they need to support those struggling with mental health issues. In each episode, guest speakers discuss their lived experiences and their strategies for wellness. 

3. Intervention tools. Developing tools to support a culturally sensitive and anti-racist approach to mental health. 

The third objective is to develop assessment and intervention tools that are culturally appropriate and evidence-based. To that end, V-TRaC designed a training program, which they offer to social work and mental health professionals to guide them in an anti-racist care approach.  

So far, they have offered this training, which has been accredited by the Canadian Psychological Association, to more than 1,500 practitioners in psycho-education, psychology, psychiatry, nursing and medicine across Canada and the United States. 

At the School of Psychology, we encourage our students to take this training,” explains Dr. Cénat. “In fact, the multicultural psychology course is now mandatory in the clinical psychology program, which gives us the opportunity to talk specifically about anti-racist care.”  

One of their goals is also to get as many universities and organizations as possible interested in anti-racist care training so that, in the future, all teaching programs that tackle mental health will take racial issues into account. 

Trainings for professionals and the public are available free of charge in English and French on the Mental Health for Everyone website. 

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