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DLSPH Student to Help Strengthen U of T’s Mental Health Supports

June 20/2019

As she was preparing to move to Toronto to study at DLSPH, Corey McAuliffe travelled to Haiti for a short teaching stint, and got a bad case of food poisoning. This sparked a rare autoimmune condition which left her in terrible pain and unable to work, walk or start her PhD for many months.

When the Portland, Oregon resident was well enough to move to Toronto, she was still walking with a cane, and had no idea how to access disability services at U of T – let alone mental health treatment to replace the support system she had built at home.

“It took me nine months to find accessibility services to help support me,” she recalls. “It was very difficult being an international student, walking into a school and needing supports and not understanding the way things work here.”

Using her advantages as a native English speaker from a similar culture, McAuliffe was able to get the help she needed eventually. But the experience left her wanting to help strengthen mental health and other support services for international students. So when U of T announced its Presidential and Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health earlier this year, McAuliffe’s supervisors encouraged her to apply.

Out of hundreds of applications, McAuliffe was one of 10 people, including students, faculty members and administrative staff, chosen earlier this month to sit on the task force. She will focus on the international experience.

“People are very confused by the health system,” she says. “Every time a new international student comes in, I do my best to help ease that transition and support them in the best ways I can. But it’s even harder when you come to the mental health aspect of it – especially for international students where English isn’t their first language or who come from a culture without similar services.”

Drawing on her own experience being sick and alone in another country, McAuliffe also wants to help set up supports for U of T students studying and working abroad.

“U of T wants to continue to grow in bringing students here and sending students other places,” she says. “This is where I see my position on this task force. Universities have sent me to different places all over the world, but there’s no conversation about the short- and long-term mental health effects of that type of work.”

McAuliffe’s experiences have had far-reaching impacts on her own views of the global public health world, and her scholarship. Although she came to U of T to study maternal and child nutrition, McAuliffe quickly realized there was a major gap in scholarship around the lived experiences of graduate students in global public health.

As a result, she began studying the experiences of students posted abroad for field work, with a particular focus on the trauma faced by women during their practica and especially after returning home.

“Mental health ended up being a main focus,” she says. “When I recruited people to interview, more than 50 responded in less than two weeks, with most finding supports lacking. One of my findings was the importance of being heard, and for one’s full stories to be heard – not just the positive spin that employers want to hear.”

McAuliffe heard stories of sexual violence, assault and harassment; of people witnessing bombings, starvation and civil unrest; of getting sick and being alone.

“Every participant I interviewed used the word ‘depression’ to describe their feelings when they returned home,” she says. “When you’re abroad, you have so much going on that it may not be until you return home that there’s some space to recognize it.”

When she began researching the topic, McAuliffe found no research papers on the experience of graduate students in global public health. She believes part of the problem is cultural: “There’s this idea of having your war wounds or badges of honour and the more you go through the tougher you are,” she says. “There’s also a discomfort with the privilege we have. Many feel our privilege negates our ability to go through trauma or distress. When you’re seeing people dying or starving and hearing about sexual assaults to young girls, your feeling of being overwhelmed and isolated doesn’t seem as important.”

McAuliffe is completing her PhD thesis on the lived experiences of women graduate students in global public health. On June 12, she published her findings in the Health and Human Rights Journalalong with her PhD supervisors, professors Erica Di Ruggiero and Dan Sellen, and committee member Ross Upshur.

The paper calls on academic institutions to provide appropriate resources and support for students engaging in global public health fieldwork.

“Where are the structures and supports making sure people are ok?” she asks. “If we’re going to be allowing students to do this intense data collection, I think grad-level students should be understood as workers, and we should be looking at their occupational health, safety, and well-being.”