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Op-ed: Vashti Campbell

The future of mental health is in celebrating difference

Part of a special feature focusing on how the Memorial community is contributing to the direction of Newfoundland and Labrador.

By Vashti Campbell

To know where we are going, we must know where we’ve come from.

As a province, we’ve been called the “friendliest people in the world.”

I believe we have work to do to open our eyes to the beautiful diversity of the peoples who inhabit this land and to open our minds and hearts to the myriad ways that human beings express this beauty.

‘How much is unsaid’

Our beauty is in our ways of being, cultural practices, world views, behaviours and gestures, understandings of our connection to one another, to the earth, to Creation.

Our beauty is diverse and divergent, and this is our future.

It’s impossible in this piece to do justice to our stories of colonization, settlement, disenfranchisement, immigration and migration that are both historical and current in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“I am a queer, non-binary person, of settler-colonial ancestry, who has an invisible disability.”

When I write about my work, and myself, it’s necessary to acknowledge how much is unsaid here.

I hope that by introducing myself below, I will at least allude to the ways we can think about our lives and the aspects of ourselves that contribute to this diverse and divergent social tapestry.

Opportunities and experiences

I am a queer, non-binary person, of settler-colonial ancestry, who has an invisible disability. I am the first in my family to attend post-secondary education. My mum is from an outport; my dad grew up on a farm; I was born in Labrador. I benefit from white-skin privilege, and was raised working/middle class.

All these aspects of my social location shape the opportunities and experiences I have, and shape my work and research.

Being here as a student, I am deeply aware of how many of my friends and colleagues travel far from their roots for the opportunity to study at Memorial. I am so grateful to be able to pursue my education at home with financial support from Memorial and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

I intend to complete my PhD in 2021. I have a keen interest in teaching and developing educational tools related to critical self-reflexivity-for-practice for psychiatrists, physicians, and medical and health-care students.

Before returning to academia, I worked in mental health for 15 years. I have been a social worker in in-patient psychiatry, a regional mental health program-planner, a sexual and domestic violence counsellor, and a support worker for 2SLGBTQI+ folks and for folks experiencing homelessness and addictions.

Auto-ethnographic exploration

Specializing now in social justice and equity in health, at the Division of Community Health and Humanities, Faculty of Medicine, is perfect for me.

Conducting my PhD research with faculty and colleagues who have expertise in qualitative, arts-based based methods, as well as in health ethics, and anthropology of medicine is an unparalleled opportunity.

My thesis work, White-washing Normative Representations of Race and Culture in the (Sub)Texts of Psychiatry, is a critical feminist, intersectional auto-ethnography examining my own complicity as a psychiatric health-care provider, as a scholar, and as a person of settler-colonial origins working in mental health.

This auto-ethnographic exploration is set against the backdrop of a post-colonial critical discourse analysis examining the language of psychiatric texts, tracing the origins of our diagnostic categories through their colonial origins and into their present culturally informed iterations.

“Higher rates of diagnosis of psychotic disorders . . are well documented in some marginalized, racialized communities.”

Together, these methodological and theoretical approaches help to form a decolonizing framework for health research, and to consider the ways that “diversity” is often “othered,” objectified and pathologized.

In a recent article, Samah Jabr, chair of the mental health unit at the Palestinian Ministry of Health, provides an excellent example of the processes of pathologization for non-Western populations in her discussion of PTSD in Palestine.

Previously, as a psychiatric social worker, I saw disconcerting patterns in the psychiatric diagnosis of people who have histories of geopolitical trauma and displacement and saw similar patterns of diagnosis among racialized and marginalized people who were coping with loss and grief.

Higher rates of diagnosis of psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, are well documented in some marginalized, racialized communities – which I did not discover until I observed these disconcerting patterns within my own places of psychiatric practice.

Cultural humility

My hope is that my thesis work will open minds and hearts to the myriad ways of being our diverse selves, enabling us to move beyond our own normative assumptions about difference.

By enhancing our respect for difference, and of holding ourselves and each other accountable for the society we co-create, it is possible that we can foster a community that supports greater mental well-being for marginalized people and simultaneously fosters cultural humility within the psychiatric system.

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