Mental Health & Well-Being Advocacy and Programs Implementing the Global Agenda, and A Spotlight on Mental Illness and Minority Identities

by Marta Korom

Published April 21, 2017

Mental Health & Well-Being Advocacy and Programs Implementing the Global Agenda, and A Spotlight on Mental Illness and Minority Identities

On 21 April 2017, the 2nd Annual Mental Health Awareness Conference was held at Teachers College, Columbia University, entitled, “From the Margins to Mainstream: A spotlight on the intersection of mental illness and minority identities.” See:

The purposes of the conference are awareness-raising about mental illness, fostering conversation and combating stigma.

The conference attendees gathered in the large Cowin Auditorium, bringing together the Teachers College (TC) community of graduate mental health students, professionals and educators, mental health professionals in the field, researchers, as well as persons with lived experience, to discuss the intersection of mental illnesses and other identities of oppression with the aim of fostering multidisciplinary conversations about stigma to break down the silos between disciplines and drive efforts from theory into practice. 

The Conference was supported by the Office of Student Affairs and the Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology at TC, and organized by A.W.A.R.E. (Advocates for Well-being, Awareness, Reform and Equality). Being student-oriented, the main organizers were TC graduate students, Dalal and Alaa Al-Homaizi, twin sisters from Kuwait, as well as Sarah Alsaidi and Srishti Sardana.

The conference was hosted by two Labs at TC, the Global Mental Health Lab in the Clinical Psychology Department, and the Stigma, Identity, and Intersectionality Lab in the Counseling Psychology Department, 

Consistent with the focus of the two organizing partners, the day-long event consisted of two sessions. The morning session addressed issues focused on identity issues and the afternoon sessions was devoted to Ted-type talks by student groups, and also a major presentation by Clinical Psychology faculty member Dr. Judy Kuriansky, who addressed major trends in the international community about mental health, including identity on individual levels and intersection of international cultures.

The Stigma, Identity, and Intersectionality Lab is a research group at TC, dedicated to investigating the links of oppression and collective identity attitudes with mental health and career outcomes among sexual, gender, and racial/ethnic minority people. The group is particularly interested in the experiences and well-being of populations with multiple stigmatized identities, such as racial ethnic minority women and LGBTQ people of color. Thus, this conference highlighted the compounded effect of stigma on minority individuals.  

​There is increasing awareness about the stigma faced by people living with mental illness, including discrimination, prejudice, negative stereotypes, and maltreatment. Stigma of mental illness is universal, occurring in all countries and cultures. Currently, more than 450 million people suffer from mental disorders worldwide and almost all these individuals face some degree of stigma and discrimination from their community, their friends, and even their own families. Some employers will refuse to hire them, some landlords will reject them, and some communities will not allow them to live in their neighborhoods. 

As future professionals in the field of mental health and current graduate students, it is our responsibility to understand stigma and how it affects the lives of our future clients as well as ways we can help reduce it.  This conference provides an extensive exploration of stigma and its various forms, as well as evidence-based and innovative approaches in stigma reduction.

The program includes talks and workshops by leading experts in the field of stigma as well as opportunities for students to submit posters and give TED-like presentations.

A keynote speaker at the morning session of the conference was Lucy Winer, who shared her harrowing story of being committed to a violent female ward at a state run (Kings Park) psychiatric hospital in the 1970s, at age 17, for failed suicide attempts. Now a mental health advocate, she told her story of returning to the abandoned hospital grounds 30 years later, at age 50, to review and heal her experience, and showed clips of the documentary she produced about her experiences.

In the question and answer session, Dr. Kuriansky expressed her empathy to Lucy for her courageous but perilous personal journey and the challenges, pain and stigma that she faced regarding committed care and the hospital system, given that Dr. Kuriansky is familiar with the state hospitals from that time. As a student, like the TC students present, Kuriansky was the youngest members of a distinguished research team at the New York State Psychiatric Institute (PI) on the Columbia Medical School campus. Her job was to interview patients released abruptly from psychiatric in-patient state hospitals in the New York City and Long Island area, including the infamous Creedmoor State Hospital, when New York State closed the doors of these institutions and sent the patients into the community, some of whom had no families to go to. Kuriansky made home visits to these patients wherever they were in the community, to assess their functioning. As might be expected, she found that those who had receptive caring families receiving them fared far better than those who did not have such post-release support. 


A panel followed this presentation. Panelist Kamellah Rashad, MS, MRP, Med, a Fellow for Spirituality, Wellness and Social Justice at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), served three years as the Muslim Chaplain at UPenn and continues to facilitate discussions on religious identity development and challenges faced by American Muslim youth. She is also a resource to the wider Penn community and administration on Islam and Muslims. Rashad is the Founder and President of Muslim Wellness Foundation (MWF), a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing stigma associated with mental illness, addiction and trauma in the American Muslim community through dialogue, education and training. The Muslim Wellness Foundation envisions a future in which faith communities are at the forefront of mental health advocacy and committed to developing an inclusive culture of compassion, understanding and support.

In addition to Rashad’s involvement in mental health advocacy and religious life, she is a proud social justice activist and founding member of Muslims Make It Plain, a coalition of concerned Muslims working to inspire, empower and support grass roots mobilization and direct action to address police brutality, racial & religious profiling, unlawful surveillance and the over-policing of America’s Black & Brown communities. Rashad serves as a member of the Advisory Council of Muslim Advocates, a national legal advocacy and educational organization that works on the frontlines of civil rights to guarantee freedom and justice for Americans of all faiths. Further, Rashad is an advisory board member of Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimARC) and the Husayn Center for Social Justice, a Muslim-run social services and advocacy center.

Rashad graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a BA in Psychology and MEd in Psychological Services. She has pursued further graduate education, completing a second Masters in Restorative Practices & Youth Counseling (MRP) from the International Institute for Restorative Practices, and is pursuing her doctorate in Clinical Psychology at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Another panelist, Dr. Riddhi Sandil, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Practice and Program Coordinator of the Ed.M. Program in Psychological Counseling at Teachers College, Columbia University. Dr. Sandil received her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Iowa in 2008 and is licensed as a Psychologist since 2009. Dr. Sandil's scholarly interests are influenced by multiculturalism and social advocacy. Her research and clinical interests include minority stress, LGBTQ issues in counseling, counseling expectations of South Asian populations and complex trauma and its impact on women's well being. Additionally, Dr. Sandil serves on the boards of the Association of Women, Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council, and is the co-found of the Sexuality, Women and Gender Project.

Panelist Dr. Marie Miville, PhD, is professor of psychology and education, currently involved in a psychology counseling program at Columbia University in New York City. Her work revolves around identifying both needs and perception of international students, perceptions towards LGBT students, and students with disabilities. However, her primary focus revolves around racial and gender differences at a collegiate level. Miville has published many works throughout her career on the topic of multicultural issues in psychology. She also works as an editor for a psychology counselling forum. Miville has had many recognitions for all her work done to better the understanding of culture and race on a psychological level.

Ted Talks

The afternoon session consisted of Ted-inspired talks by students, describing their experiences and research.

A presentation by TC faculty member Dr. Judy Kuriansky kicked off the afternoon session. The title of her talk was:  “Mental Health & Well-Being: Advocacy and Programs Implementing the Global Agenda.”

Dr. Kuriansky presented a TED-inspired talk about advocacy and programs implementing the Global Agenda at the United Nations.  She was introduced by her long-time friend and colleague Dr. Lena Verdeli, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at TC and director of the TC Global Mental Health lab, who among other credits, has done landmark studies involving the adaptation of interpersonal therapy in countries around the world, e.g. Uganda, India, Haiti, and war-affected Syrian refugees in Lebanon, among others. She is currently a technical advisor for the WHO on global dissemination of psychosocial treatments.

Consistent with the mission of the conference, Dr. Kuriansky shared about the role that psychologists play at the United Nations, to contribute to the international agenda and advance mental health and well-being for the good of peoples around the world; and addressed what students have done, and can do, in this major effort.  Specifically, she outlined her successful advocacy at the United Nations and future plans, relevant to the student body’s present and future work as mental health professionals.

Dr. Judy Kuriansky is a world-renown clinical psychologist, journalist, and humanitarian who has been at the forefront of engaging the United Nations in a discourse about the centrality of mental health issues and the importance of providing access to psychological support to everyone in need of them. In her role as President of the Psychology coalition of NGOS accredited at the UN, she led a historical campaign, with her inspirational work and unceasing enthusiasm, and relationships with UN Ambassadors and high-level delegates, and in partnership with the UN Ambassador Dr. Caleb Otto from Pala, that led to the inclusion of target 3.4 in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and the rod “wellbeing” in the title of the Goal 3 about Health ad Well-being For All, which highlights the importance of promoting mental health and wellbeing around the world. Inspired by her hard work and successes at the UN, Dr. Judy has established a highly successful and popular course at Columbia University Teachers College, entitled “Psychology and the United Nations,” during which she encourages students to use the UN platform to tackle the questions and issues about which they are passionate. In her presentation, she commented on some of the ambitious ongoing projects by students in her class, including one about what humanitarian aid workers go through during their missions on the sites of natural disasters and war-torn regions, and another project that reaches out to politicians in Eastern Europe to initiate a conversation about mental health services available in their countries.

It took years of persistent campaigning and networking for Dr. Kuriansky and her team, which included several students who were of substantial assistants to her, to convince the UN government representatives about the critical role of mental health on individual and global economic levels and win their support for the inclusion of the expression “promote mental health and wellbeing” in target 3.4 of the SDGs, and of the word “well-being” in the title of the Goal, to “Insure Heath and Well-being for all.”  This successful advocacy is an enormous accomplishment for the mental health world, as all the 193 countries represented at the UN agreed to make an effort to accomplish this goal and target, along with all the other 16 goals (referred to as Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs) outlined in the Agenda, by the year 2030.

Expressing appreciation to the youth who assisted in her advocacy campaign, Dr. Judy emphasized the importance of the young generations’ understanding of the UN agenda and the importance of their efforts to continue this work, and to escalate and augment this advocacy about mental health and well-being for the future, especially as a new framework will start to be designed by 2015, in preparation for the ending of this document, and a new iteration, by the year 2030.

“It is your job to take this agenda over and make it bigger and make sure that more education for all is available, more peaceful societies, more mental health and wellbeing, more health in general and eradicating poverty,” she told the young people gathered.

While a lot of work still needs to be done in order to carry through target 3.4, to promote mental health and well-being, much has been already accomplished. As Dr. Judy noted, significant effort has been made to overcome stigma and to address the issues that marginalized groups face through constructive discussions, which have initiated a slow but steady progress at the UN. These marginalized groups include the LGBTQI community, the aging population, youth, refugees and displaced persons, and indigenous communities, among others, who are more actively being represented today at the UN, and whose issues serve as topics of discussion, and importantly, that action is being taken to resolve them.

Another highly important group at the UN is Women, whose efforts are greatly supported by all countries and most importantly the UN Secretary-General, who pledged to 50/50 parity (to much applause at a convening at the UN of the Commission on the Status of Women) and promised that by the end of his term, half of the UN staff would be women.

“That’s major! Can you imagine how major that is? … People have been advocating about this for ages and now all of a sudden it is happening! This is part of the progress that you all have inherited!” said Dr. Judy, sharing her enthusiasm and optimism with the student body.

Accomplishing all the 17 SDGs by 2030 is a highly aspirational goal, as the goals range from poverty eradication, environmental protection and sustainability, quality education, to peaceful societies all around the world, but as Dr. Judy said, it is not impossible. The current instrument evolved from a previous version with only 8 goals, that guided the governments until 2015, which has now expanded to 17 goals, as these better encapsulate all the issues related to human rights, development, and peace, the pillars upon which the United Nations was founded.

Some issues have become the center of attention, due to advocacy efforts by large groups, such as the UN Women group that advocates for gender equality. In addition, countries have become committed to augmenting resolutions to protect migrants and refugees.  Coincidentally, the Secretary-General was previously the head of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), inspiring his commitment to promote discussion about the UN’s role in working towards the resolution of the refugee crisis.

Given her role as a professor in the psychology department, Dr. Kuriansky described the increasing voice of psychologists and mental health professionals at the UN. Representatives at the UN of the NGO community, as she does for the International Association of applied Psychology and the World Council of Psychotherapy, these NGOs came together with at least 10 similarly psychologically-oriented NGOs, to form a coalition, to advocate as a group more effectively than individually. Together, they collaborate, advocate, and raise awareness of the issues related to mental health and wellbeing. Happiness is a topic that these NGOs have promoted, supporting the efforts of  UN member states (governments) such as Bhutan and the United Arab Emirates, which have taken steps toward measuring countries success by the level of happiness of the citizens instead of just by the economic measure of GDP. Such initiatives are vital as they serve as an example to all the other countries to integrate mental health topics into their country agendas.

As part of her talk, Dr. Judy also showed a video she produced for her presentation at the United Nations on World Health Day, hosted by the World Health Organization (WHO) on April 7th. The campaign for this year was on “Depression, Let’s Talk,” which brought attention to the mental health difficulties that particularly teenagers face at that tender age. Dr. Judy mentioned her 3 S’s: shame, stigma, and silence, and also the tragic problem of  youth low self-esteem and suicide.

Events at the UN area allowing youth to speak up about their lived experiences of previous or current mental health problems, and create an opportunity for UN representatives to engage in a conversation about the importance of bringing mental health problems to the forefront of the global agenda.

“As more voices speak up, more governments are listening, … and more countries take active leadership,” noted Dr. Judy in the video, emphasizing the importance of engaging in active conversation about the mental health issues.

The video also demonstrated how successful interventions that Dr. Judy and her teams have implemented around the world work to build psychosocial resilience, especially in areas with low human resources and scarce financial resources and where natural disasters, wars, and/or epidemics have caused indescribable damage to both the infrastructure and the social structure of a nation.

“90% of young people experience some kind of mental health conditions living in low income countries. This leaves young people stuck in poverty with mental health issues that stay with them for the rest of their lives,” stated a UN representative in the video, a claim that was supported by statistical data. This prevalence comes as a high price, costing up to 3 trillion dollars of economic loss each year, when if addressed, problems could be treated at a low cost.  The message is that investment in mental health is a good investment.

To bring this message home powerfully with regard to attention at the Untied Nations by governments, Dr. Judy brought with her to the conference to make a presentation, her good friend, the UN Permanent Representative of the Republic of Benin to the United Nations, H.E. Ambassador Jean-Francis Zinsou. Ambassador Zinsou was a cornerstone in helping Dr. Judy and her team advance in their goal to include mental health and wellbeing in the SDG targets, in his role as chair of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), advocating for all the SDGs crucial to benefit to these countries.  It was a brilliant step in her advocacy for Dr. Kuriansky to involve such leaders of major groups of countries to support her campaign.

Ambassador Zinsou addressed the importance of the SDGs to make our world a vibrant community in the long run, and acknowledged the importance of youth.

“I see all the young people. You were our first concern when we were elaborating the SDGs, because we wanted to make sure that we don’t steal your future. We have to think about solutions that guarantee that you have the world in which you can live and prosper and where your children can live and prosper,” he said. 

He added that “…eradicating poverty was at the forefront [of the SDGs] because poverty is the source of many of the giant source of problems.” In his closing remarks, Ambassador Zinsou talked about the importance of bringing these 48 least developed countries to the forefront of the global agenda given that they are facing problems that they cannot solve by themselves.

The LDCs have many common characteristics, Ambassador Zinsou noted, as they all have low GDPs, low human developmental indices, and are high on the environmental vulnerability index, namely, the number of people affected by disasters when they occur.

“Some people are asking, ‘How much that will cost to the international community?’ It is not about just raising money to LDCs, it’s about making sure money that LDCs get also goes to the benefit of the SDGs to address the concerns.”

Dr. Judy’s and bringing the high-level presence of Ambassador Zinsou to the students, was a big success. It showed her successful journey to bring mental health and wellbeing to the UN’s attention, and also because encouraged the younger generations to get involved and inspired, to take action to address mental health-related issues in their work and career, to contribute to the world.

Reported by Marta Korom, student member of the International Association of Applied Psychology; master’s student in Clinical Psychology at Columbia University Teachers College and student in Professor Judy Kuriansky’s class on “Psychology and the United Nations.” In addition to her academic coursework, Marta is heavily invested in psychological research with a focus on how early life adversities and socioeconomic status influence the mental health and wellbeing of children and adolescents.

Cite this article as: Korom, M. (2017).  Mental Health & Well-Being Advocacy and Programs Implementing the Global Agenda, and A Spotlight on Mental Illness and Minority Identities. International Association of Applied Psychology.