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With a focus on mental health, U of T’s Mindfest event aims to educate and inspire

Nikhita Singhal, a resident physician in psychiatry at U of T, is among the participants in this year's Mindfest event, which aims to build awareness about mental health and promote mental wellness (photo courtesy of Singhal)

The University of Toronto will host its ninth annual Mindfest event in early March to build awareness of mental health and provide strategies to promote mental wellness.

This year’s event, which will take place virtually from March 5 to 8, provides a virtual venue for honest conversations about mental health, and features experts from U of T’s department of psychiatry in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, among others, in partnership with Jack.org.

The keynote speaker is sports broadcaster Michael Landsberg, who has experience with mood disorders and stigma. His organization, Sick Not Weak, has changed how Canadians think about mental illness and started new conversations about mental health in sports.

Psychiatry resident physician Chika Stacy Oriuwa will present about her experience as a Black woman in medicine, and how racial marginalization and mental health can intersect.

Associate Professors Daphne Korczak and Jennifer Crosbie will discuss impacts of the pandemic on the mental health of children and young people, and Kierston Drier will speak about self-care when resources are inaccessible from her perspective as founder of the Bathroom-Stall Project.

Mindfest amplifies unique perspectives on mental health. 

Nikhita Singhal, also a resident physician in psychiatry at U of T, will talk about how treatments for an eating disorder when she was a youth motivated her to pursue psychiatry as a career – and how those experiences have informed her approach to providing care.

Singhal was hospitalized for the first time at age eight and underwent a care program focused on weight gain and nutrition.

“It felt like a revolving door – a metaphor initially shared with me by a nurse who had worked on the unit for over a decade and repeatedly watched the same patients come in after being ‘weight-restored,’ then relapsing as soon as they left the hospital,” says Singhal. “I saw the same pattern for myself and many of my co-patients, as each encounter with the system pushed me further into illness and instilled a deep sense of distrust and frustration with treatment itself.”

Singhal says her experiences show that eating disorders are poorly understood, with treatments frequently centred on symptoms rather than underlying causes.

“I believe a greater focus on healing one’s relationship with the body and exploring the underlying issues would be beneficial,” says Singhal. “Current approaches often do include some element of therapy, yet the emphasis remains first and foremost on food and weight gain.”

The pandemic has seen a marked increase in the number of young people diagnosed with eating disorders, underlining the importance of identifying the most effective forms of treatment.

Singhal says tailoring treatments to the individual rather than taking a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach would greatly benefit patients. As someone who has been both a patient and care provider, Singhal says we often divide these two groups into distinct categories and lose sight of their common humanity.

“Recognizing patients as the experts in their own experiences and appreciating the vast wealth of insight they bring to the table is crucial,” she says. “My hope is that we can bridge the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in the health-care system – we are all human beings who may fall ill ourselves at some point, and this is not a weakness or flaw on our part.”

Singhal says people who want to help promote patient voices can openly discuss these topics with health-care providers and seek opportunities to add their voices to the conversation on a broader level.

The message reflects Mindfest’s core mission: include all voices in the mental health conversation. Singhal hopes her presentation will help others feel empowered, combat stigma and demonstrate what’s possible.

“We are not weak because we have struggled; the challenges we have faced and the experiences which have shaped our paths can make us stronger,” she says. “I believe there are multitudes of resilient, courageous individuals with their own stories to share who have a tremendous amount to offer to the health-care system.”

 

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