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Gunjan Mhapankar: Cross-cultural collaboration

Gunjan Mhapankar: Cross-cultural collaboration

Collaborating across continents to improve mental health

What happens when young change-makers from two Commonwealth countries work together to tackle problems in their communities? Queen’s Young Leader, Gunjan Mhapankar, tells Leading Change.

2018 promises to be an important year for those with mental health problems in Kenya. There – as in so many countries around the world – the stigma of mental illness all too often leads to social isolation.

But a family education programme is scheduled for the beginning of 2018. This follows an exchange trip organised by the Global Minds Fellowship Programme at the University of Western Ontario, Canada and their sister Global Minds group in Machakos, Kenya.

Card saying Global Minds at Western Programme, 2017 Summer Institute, Kenya

Image credit: Tom Rodger

Gunjan joined the Canadian branch of Global Minds, when she embarked on her medical degree at the University of Western Ontario during her Queen’s Young Leaders year.

“The goal of the programme is to reduce the burden of mental health disorders in the world,” she explains, adding that she was lucky enough to visit Kenya this year with the programme.

“I am currently in the process of co-creating the education content through local ongoing stakeholder focus groups in Machakos,” she says.

“The mental health innovation lies in harnessing family members’ potential by reorienting them as a highly available and compassionate resource, rather than a barrier that propagates the cycle of stigma.”

But how did this innovation come about?

Using a framework

Gunjan won her Queen’s Young Leaders award for the Digital Storytelling Project, which provided a platform where non-profits could tell their stories. She says she managed the Digital Storytelling Project through a process of “trial and error”.

The Leading Change course enabled Gunjan to become a more effective leader.

“It’s provided a tangible framework to help guide leadership decisions, how to design a project, how to network, what are the things you need to keep in mind when you’re trying to prototype something.”

But what she found most useful was learning about the Double Diamond model, in the Change by Design module – a tool she has shared with her Global Minds colleagues. 

“It’s been really helpful. Discover a problem, define it, design it and deliver it. That kind of framework is very intuitive, but it has been helpful in terms of knowing where I am and where I need to go.”

The ten-strong team from Canada arrived in Machakos in May 2017 for the “Summer Institute”. This is where they worked alongside ten Kenyan students, as well as local community partners and faculty members from the Africa Mental Health Foundation.

Their mission? To work with local mental health professionals and students on dispelling outmoded beliefs about mental health in the community.

How it worked 

Participants were divided into four teams of both Canadian and Kenyan health workers and students. Each team was tasked with developing a solution to a complex problem, proposed by one of the local community partners and was coached by two faculty members – one Kenyan and one Canadian.

Gunjan and her team

Gunjan and her team at the Global Minds Summer Institute. Image credit: Tom Rodger

“We worked alongside Machakos Hospital and local stakeholders – such as nurses, patients, family members, community health workers, and outreach workers – to develop solutions through a social innovation approach,” Gunjan explains. “We also engaged in an intensive curriculum of sense-making exercises similar to the Leading Change programme.”

This included:

  • system mapping
  • stakeholder analysis
  • developing challenge questions and briefs
  • determining personal and team impact statements
  • developing strategies to implement, evaluate the proposed solution
  • and sustainability strategies.

But the curriculum did not just focus on finding solutions, there was a people-centred element too, including:

  • daily mindfulness and reflection sessions
  • cultural exchanges
  • larger group and team-building activities
  • and focused, interactive learning on topics such as public speaking and leadership development.

“We pitched our project proposals at end of the Summer Institute,” says Gunjan, “and won $5,000 Canadian to complete a proof of concept.”

So where did all this lead?

The solution

A family education and empowerment programme will provide education about mental illness, and resources for care and follow-up.

School children flock round Gunjan

Gunjan with children from Kivandini Primary School in Machakos Town, and Brianna Jackson, another student from the Faculty of Health Sciences at Western University. Image credit: Tom Rodger

Just as important – the programme will enable families and caregivers to share skills and strategies on helping loved ones recover and reintegrate, by providing a space for them to meet.

“This has proven to be an effective model in increasing community awareness, increasing access to care, reducing symptoms of – and stigma towards – mental illness,” says Gunjan.

So, the family education programme is scheduled for the new year, and Gunjan is working on the content. But that is not the end of the story.

“In 2018, the team from Machakos is going to come to Canada and we’re going to do the same in the local communities here.”

Intercontinental collaboration 

Gunjan has a passion for intercultural collaboration. Born in the very multicultural, international city of Mumbai, she moved to Canada at 15.

Speaking at One Young World in 2016, she urged delegates to work together to make this world a better place.

“Let’s show the world what real intercultural understanding actually looks like. Let’s show the world what real international collaboration can look like.”

And she keeps in touch with her fellow Queen’s Young Leaders, taking the opportunity to visit Peris Bosire while she was in Nairobi.

“We shared each other’s projects over a wonderful meal,” says Gunjan, “and she also dropped me off at the airport. So proud of this incredible supportive Queen’s Young Leader family!”