York student Mirian Dang was recently recognized by the Ontario Women’s Directorate for her contributions to society and as a leader for her efforts to dismantle the stigma of youth mental illness. She was one of five chosen from Ontario to act as a role model to other girls in celebration of the first United Nations International Day of the Girl.
It was just one of a spate of honours this first-year kinesiology and health science student in the Faculty of Health has amassed over the years. A strong believer in volunteering, Dang went far beyond the 40 hours required to graduate from secondary school, instead racking up some 800 hours to earn a Lieutenant Governor’s Community Volunteer Award.
In the summer, she was named one of Youth in Motion’s 2012 Top 20 Under 20™ award recipients from across Canada. This, she says, is one of the awards she’s most proud to have received. Even so, meeting with York University President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri Tuesday, Nov. 13 had Dang “very excited”. “My meeting with President Shoukri was fabulous,” she says, adding he was interested in her work in mental health and her future plans.
Her experiences volunteering at various health institutions led to the realization that children with mental health issues were often bullied and teased. “I really got to experience first-hand the negative taboo of mental health,” says Dang. “I’ve seen how it’s affected these children and I really wanted to help them. I really wanted to speak up for them.”
That’s when in 2010 she decided to start Discovery Days in Mental Health, a non-profit organization designed to inform and educated people about youth mental health, and to help end the negative stigma associated with mental illness. Dang says her goal is to increase mental health literacy.
“Studies have shown that mental health literacy is a highly effective method to combat negative attitudes and behaviours, especially through school-based intervention programs,” she says.
From left, Mirian Dang and York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri
To date, she has conducted workshops in about 18 elementary, secondary and post-secondary schools, reaching some 600 students using interactive activities and humour to engage and teach awareness and tolerance around mental illness.
In 2011, she organized a symposium on youth mental health in her hometown of Markham with the help of a Dare to Dream grant from the Ontario Centre of Excellence and Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. Psychiatrists and psychologists talked to the public about, among other things, stigma, youth and mental health, family mental health and youth homelessness.
She says she wants youth to know that “everyone can make a change. Every action makes a change. Everything you say, everything you do counts. So don’t be afraid to speak up and take action.”
Mental illness can have a far reaching impact. With research showing that mental health problems can be a risk factor for substance use problems and vice-versa, and that accessing treatment for concurrent disorders can be a major challenge, Dang is ready to tackle this challenge next.
She has established a chapter of the grassroots organization “Partnership for a Drug Free Canada” at York University through which she says her “goal is to increase awareness about concurrent disorders and the unique challenges in recognizing, diagnosing and treating them in addition to acknowledging the plethora of problems faced by those suffering from them. I hope that these efforts will one day result in more appropriate responses and support.”
In addition, she would like to organize a symposium on youth mental health at York University in the future.
“It is my goal to continue advocating to change the negative attitudes, behaviours and beliefs to help others in my life,” says Dang.
By Sandra McLean, YFile deputy editor