Access to Black mental health services at Ryerson

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By Tajae Gustavus

Mental health is rarely openly discussed in the Black community. Juannittah Kamera, Ryerson’s health promotions program coordinator, says that the issue isn’t always related to stigma, but an overall lack of knowledge about mental health.

Black communities in Canada often face unique challenges and systemic barriers that can negatively impact their mental health, said Kamera. This is the unfortunate reality that many in the Black community encounter when facing mental illnesses.

Part of what Kamera does at the StudentHealth Assistance and Resilience Program (SHARP) is help students put aname to what they are experiencing, so they can find the right services.

Kelisha May, a fifth-year social work student, says that she didn’t seek help until she had hit her lowest point. “I hit rock bottom. I think a lot of the time that’s when Black people reach out for help.”

May was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder in February 2018. While she was trying to get on medication and receive accommodations from Ryerson, it took until May for her to meet with a professional. Receiving academic accommodation wasn’t easy either.

“From my experience with being diagnosed and talking to professors at Ryerson, who are in programs that are considered to be anti-oppressive framed, I had the worst experience,” she said. She remembers one of her professors refusing to ac-commodate her, saying she had to figure it out on her own.

“In terms of Black women and our experiences with mental health, we aren’t given compassion at all [compared to] our [non-Black] women counterparts,” May said that if it wasn’t for Carol Sutherland, former enrollment services representative, she wouldn’t have been accommodated and wouldn’t have been able to finish school. When the medical centre didn’t follow up with May, Sutherland helped her find a doctor to be able to finally receive the academic accommodations she needed.

Sutherland said that when May trusted her enough to open up to her about her mental illness, as a staff member, she felt like she had a duty to help. She also founded the Ryerson Black Faculty and Staff Community Net-work in 2014 which was created to provide mentorship for Black students. Having staff that looks like you and that can relate to you is an instrumental part of protecting Black mental health.

Aside from staff representation, access to Black therapists is also important. “Ryerson has not taken the time to really help out racialized, Black and Indigenous students,” said Suther-land. “Not only do we need psychiatrists who relate to black students because of the colour of their skin, but psychiatrists who understand anti-Black racism.”

May, like many others, found trouble accessing services that helped her. “There really needs to be more Black therapists that are more accessible because the few therapists that I have had have all been horrible.”

As a result, it can feel as if counseling isn’t an option for marginalized people. Susanne Nyaga, former president of the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU), opened up the Wellness Centre last year. The centre was created as a response to gaps pointed out within the current mental health resources that were avail-able on campus.

“Those coming from racialized bodies, trans bodies or intersecting identities weren’t able to access these spaces as full people,” Nyaga said. Speaking to a counsellor who doesn’t understand how racism would impact your mental health does not help break down what you’re going through, she adds.

The Wellness Centre was intended to be a holistic space that addressed wellness from a mental, emotional, physical and spiritual aspect for students who didn’t fully resonate with going to counselling.

The Eyeopener previously reported the RSU was planning to re-open the Wellness Centre by the end of February 2019. Before that, space was being used as a storage room, workspace for the students’ union and a “hang out” space, as told by an employee.

Last year, the Public Health Agency of Canada allocated $19 million to Black-centric mental healthservices. “Having the capacity to provide a space thatallows students to bring their full selves and addresstheir wellness, that should be something Ryerson’s al-ready doing,” said Nyaga

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