Ninth annual ‘Immigrant Women of Inspiration’ features four women pushing boundaries in science and technology

April 7, 2022

Every spring, in recognition of International Women’s Day, March 8, Canadian Immigrant spotlights women of inspiration in different fields. This year, we feature four women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)  who are pushing boundaries in research, education and their commitment to the pursuit of knowledge and innovation, serving as an inspiration to other women in the field. Here are the journeys of Srividya Iyer, Jelena Holovati, Khristine G. Cariño and Prathibha Goonawardhana.

Srividya Iyer | Thinking outside the box 
By Vivien Fellegi

Srividya Iyer’s passion for mental health began in childhood, when her father told her stories while she sat on his lap. After developing an equal fascination for science, Iyer chose the career of psychology, merging her love of narrative with her penchant for critical thinking.

Iyer’s ability to think outside the box came in handy when she joined the staff at one of India’s busiest public hospitals, where she and her interns assessed up to 200 patients each morning. They learned to rely on natural allies: the clients’ families. In India, relatives are more involved in patients’ treatment than in the West, and families’ participation helps to keep their loved ones on track. Iyer also learned to depend on an integrated team of health care providers during her stints at community camps, where clients with mental health concerns were referred concurrently to a wide range of services.

The lesson would remain with Iyer when she immigrated to the US to embark on her PhD. The move, in 2001, was tough. Iyer was the only international student in her department, and, while most of her colleagues were welcoming, she sometimes felt subjected to stereotypes, for example, when they wondered at her fluency in English. “That was a heavy burden to bear,” she says. These microaggressions sensitized Iyer to the barriers faced by other marginalized people, and generated a lifelong striving for inclusion.

Iyer also struggled with some aspects of her career. Many of her patients were older and seriously ill, and many had already suffered multiple relapses. “We were … catching people after they had fallen through the cracks,” she says. Iyer realized it would be more effective to intervene when symptoms first emerged, usually during youth. “I wanted to start with that optimism,” she says.

McGill University’s Prevention and Early Intervention Program for Psychosis (PEPP) program offered exactly that. The initiative targets youth during their first episode of psychosis (loss of contact with reality), offering them rapid access to treatment, including self referral. As symptoms stabilize, youths’ educational, occupational and other developmental needs are addressed. This holistic approach has yielded improved outcomes.

But while Montreal youth with psychosis were recovering at PEPP, youngsters with a wide range of psychiatric problems across Canada were flailing. Stigma around mental health deters many young people from asking for help, says Iyer. If they do seek treatment, they encounter long delays, uncomfortable spaces like hospital rooms, and referrals to various health care services that don’t communicate with each other. Disoriented and disrespected, many drop out of treatment.

To remedy these problems, Iyer and her team designed ACCESS Open Minds a pan-Canadian network of professionals doing ground-breaking research on mental health and revolutionizing its treatment. As director of the program, she ensures that every client is assessed by a mental health clinician within 72 hours of reaching out, in line with PEPP’s model of early intervention. Clients come from traditionally underserved groups, including Indigenous, visible minority, LGBTQ2S+ and homeless youth.

After their initial assessment and inputs from both youth and their families, clients are offered a large range of services, including psychotherapy, housing, career advice, peer support, addiction services, and even sports and games. “It’s a one-stop shop,” says Iyer. Once youth access these treatment modalities, it’s critical to keep them committed to their recovery, she says.

The creation of safe and welcoming spaces is another key ingredient to engagement. Institutional settings are avoided in favor of community centres, cafes and even garages. Local youth are invited to co-design the décor, sprinkling meeting rooms with comforting items like stress busters, bags of tea, feathers of hope, and other artefacts reflective of cultural groups. These user-friendly places send the message “’You’re welcome,’” says Iyer.

Recent data show that these innovations are working. Eighty-four per cent of youth suffering from anxiety, depression, and other psychiatric issues were seen rapidly, within 72 hours. The majority of these clients had improvements in mental health and elevated school, work and social functioning.

Iyer’s impressive results have already earned her a plethora of prizes. She’s been inducted into the College of the Royal Society of Canada, and has been named a Champion of Mental Health by the Canadian Association on Mental Illness and Mental Health. Iyer has also gone global with her research, teaming up with colleagues in the U.K. to study access to mental healthcare amongst urban slumdwellers in Bangladesh and Nigeria.

But her greatest joy is just knowing she’s making a difference. “It’s fulfilling,” she says. “I really love what I do.”

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