A University of Toronto psychiatric resident who was the only Black student in her medical school class of almost 260 says she turned to therapy to process the pain she suffered as a result of racism and discrimination. Dr. Chika Stacy Oriuwa went on to graduate as valedictorian from U of T medical school in 2020, but the hostility she faced throughout her medical education took a toll on her mental health and left her feeling hopeless and anxious, she told the “We’re Listening” virtual event to mark Bell Let’s Talk Day.
The Jan. 26 event brought together five speakers to talk about mental illness in the context of equity, diversity and inclusion. It was presented by the Ontario Psychiatric Association and sponsored by the Coalition of Ontario Psychiatrists and Bell Let’s Talk, an annual awareness campaign spearheaded by Bell Media to combat the stigma surrounding mental illness in Canada.
Raised in Brampton, Dr. Oriuwa was one of four children of Nigerian parents who immigrated to Canada in the 1980s. Before she was even old enough to attend school, she began dreaming of becoming a doctor, even though she’d never encountered a Black physician, let alone a Black female physician.
“I had to overcome this idea that maybe I didn’t necessarily belong in medicine because nobody in medicine looks like me,” she said.
During her undergraduate years at McMaster University, she began using spoken word poetry as a form of self-advocacy and socio-political activism, reaching out to minority youth in the community to teach them to use their voice to process their lived experience.
When she started medical school in 2016, it wasn’t unusual that she was the only Black student in the class. A 2015 study published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that 2.9 per cent of Canadian medical students in 2012 identified as African or Caribbean.
Dr. Oriuwa encountered pushback and cruel comments on her first day of medical school with one person asking if the university made her admission easier because she is Black. Over the years, comments from staff, peers, other residents, tutors, patients and the public have included: “You’re not a doctor,” “I would never want you to provide medical care to my children,” and “Your people aren’t as smart and that’s why they’re not in medicine.”
Feeling alienated, she sought professional mental health support early in medical school which strengthened her resolve. “Having therapy in medical school and now in my residency has been a huge component of my wellness.”
Her advocacy work included volunteering as an ambassador for U of T’s Black Student Application Program, aimed at increasing the number of Black applications to the Faculty of Medicine by involving more Black academics in the file review and interviewing processes.
As Dr. Oriuwa’s advocacy became more public over the years — she gives three to four keynote addresses every month — she was victimized by nasty and hateful comments on social media. Even on the day after she graduated from medical school, there were those who attacked her for being named valedictorian only because “she’s a Black immigrant.” Dr. Oriuwa was born in Canada.
“There was an earnest attempt to discredit the work that I’d done, to strip me of the merit of being a doctor, within 24 hours of earning my MD.”
The silver lining, on her graduation day, was the announcement that 24 Black students had been admitted to the U of T’s Faculty of Medicine for the following year, the largest such group in Canadian history.
“Being part of that legacy and knowing that the risks I had taken four years ago had contributed to this incredible historic moment was one of the proudest things I’ve ever been part of.”
Dr. Oriuwa has been recognized for her advocacy with numerous honours, including being named a Time Magazine 2021 Next Generation Leader and being chosen by Mattel’s #ThankYouHeroes campaign to have a Barbie doll created in her image to commemorate her contribution as a front-line health-care worker.
Now in the second year of her residency, her choice of psychiatry as a specialty “was a natural progression of my passion for advocacy and safeguarding vulnerable and marginalized populations.”
Dr. Oriuwa believes there are still vestiges of a deeply entrenched history of anti-Blackness within mental health care and research has shown there is a lack of access to mental health care in the Black community, as well as a dearth of Black psychiatrists.
“Stepping in to fill that gap is something I’m very passionate about.”
Thunder Bay psychiatrist Dr. Renée Vachon spoke about the importance of community and government-level changes to address the issue of significant mental health disparities among Indigenous people in northern Ontario.
Dr. Vachon, who is an assistant professor at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, said there must be a recognition that generations of unjust government policies such as residential schools and the Child Welfare Act marginalized Indigenous people and left them vulnerable to food and housing insecurity and lack of education and employment opportunities. These problems, in turn, increased their incidence of mental health issues, including self-harm.
Eric Windeler and Alex Aide told the “We’re Listening” event about their partnership working to protect the mental wellbeing of youth, which is crucial because many mental health challenges appear before the age of 14. Windeler is executive director of Jack.org, an organization he and his wife founded in 2010 after losing their son Jack to suicide during his first year at Queen’s University. Aide is director of programs at the U.S.-based Born This Way Foundation, co-founded by Lady Gaga and her mother to support the mental health of young people.
The two organizations are partnering on several initiatives, including an expansion of Jack.org’s Be There program, which teaches young people what to do when someone they know is struggling with mental illness.
“We are building a world where future generations know what to do and how to help when they or someone they know is struggling,” Aide said.
The evening’s virtual audience heard from Dr. Yusra Ahmad, a community and academic psychiatrist in Toronto, who shared her views on resilience and grounding during times of turmoil. OMA CEO Allan O’Dette and President Dr. Adam Kassam provided greetings and thanked attendees for supporting mental health.
“As physicians, we understand the importance of mental health, and its impact on people, families and our communities,” said Dr. Kassam. “As part of our work to break down barriers to care, we must recognize that, as a diverse society, there are differences in the way we approach mental illness, depending on social, religious and cultural values.”
The OMA is calling for expanded mental health and addiction services in the community as part of sweeping recommendations in its Prescription for Ontario: Doctors’ 5-Point Plan for Better Health Care.
Keri Sweetman is an Edmonton-based writer.