On their own terms

Using participatory research methods, Occupational Therapy’s Shu-Ping Chen wants to change public attitudes towards marginalized groups and increase their sense of social inclusion.

Sasha Roeder Mah - 19 July 2022

Shu-Ping Chen has worked for years in the space where mental health and occupation meet. An associate professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy, Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine (and member of the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute) at the University of Alberta, Chen believes people can live a satisfying, hopeful and productive life regardless of limitations due to illness or social conditions — and her research stems from that place of hope.

With a focus on those living with mental health concerns or substance misuse, Chen’s overarching research goal is to improve social inclusion, mental health and well-being through prevention, awareness and destigmatizing. Her work falls into three major categories: campus mental health promotion, recovery across the spectrum of health conditions and occupational safety for new immigrant workers.

Most recently, she has focused on student mental health. “[Students] are building our future,” she says. “With a better understanding of their own mental health and having the support they need, they can create a better and kinder future for the next generations.”

Why is destigmatization so key in tackling mental health issues?
Stigma can cause more devastating consequences than health conditions do, damaging a person’s self-esteem, imposing additional stress and preventing them from calling for help and seeking care.

The more we destigmatize mental health concerns and substance misuse, the more inclusive our communities will be, reducing stresses on those who need help and clearing a path for support. I’ve seen this in my own life: Destigmatizing mental health has allowed my own children to feel safe talking about their issues with me and empowers me to help them.

What part of your research focuses on students?
I have an extensive background in campus mental health, not only through academia, but also through many years of experience establishing best practices for student well-being at post-secondary campuses across Canada. My current research focuses on students’ excessive drinking, substance misuse and mental health. I use empowerment-based health promotion and a participatory approach, which allow students as co-researchers to determine their own actions to improve their personal and community health.

Why is participatory research so effective?
In participatory action research, community members actively participate as co-researchers. They’re responsible for deciding what problems we will research, what they might do to solve those problems, and how the data should be collected. On campuses, this student-driven approach gives students the opportunity to name their issues using their own language and understanding, discuss possible actions and take those actions.

Students are “insiders” who know their culture, needs and concerns. Compared to researchers (like me) — who are “outsiders” — students are better positioned to develop action-based interventions that address their needs.

What kind of participatory action research have you done with students?
My team has carried out student-led initiatives to address socially constructed perceptions about gender that promote alcohol misuse on campus. Student co-researchers identified gender norms that matter to them and developed relevant, gender-specific, culturally sound interventions. We found that this student-led approach was very effective in addressing culturally manifested drinking norms on campus.

We also led a participatory video project involving student co-researchers from five universities who developed a documentary about mental health concerns on campus.

How might that recent research impact the future of student mental health?
We are proposing a national project to empower students across five universities — including the U of A — to build an Inter-Campus Virtual Community of Practice (iCoPe), to foster resilience and promote student mental health. Student co-researchers from each campus will design and implement health-promotion activities. This virtual platform will foster a safe and creative space where students can collaborate to create solutions to common health-promotion problems and issues on their campuses.

Along with programs like iCoPe, what else can students do to build resilience and protect their mental health?
  • Build connections: Talking to others with shared experience helps you feel less alone; connect with friends and family for support through difficult times.
  • Take care of yourself: Counter the stress by looking after yourself with proper time management and daily routines, quality sleep, a healthy diet, daily exercise and participating in activities you enjoy.
  • Set goals: Having small but realistic goals helps you move forward. Even a small accomplishment can help you feel a sense of achievement, make your everyday meaningful and give you the energy to work toward your next goals.
  • Call for help: Reach out when you feel low or don’t know where to go.