School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

Stigma is like a mountain that people with mental illnesses have to climb every day.

Article by Natalia Mukhina

Shamik Sen on Mount Kilimanjaro.

Recently, Shamik Sen, a graduate student in Neuroscience, returned from Tanzania, where he was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. He reached the summit, which is at 5,895 meters above sea level, to raise funds for mental illness stigma awareness. Prior to this courageous adventure, Sen had created a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to support Addiction and Mental Health Services Kingston (AMHS-KFLA).

“I’ve partnered with AMHS-KFLA for my thesis research on mental illness recovery with Dr. Roumen Milev and Dr. Heather Stuart, who also is the Bell Canada Research Chair on Mental Health. I wanted to raise funds to improve the quality and quantity of stigma-related workshops offered by AMHS-KFLA in the community for people living with mental illness.”

Sen has been engrossed in mental health research since he began studying life sciences at Queen’s. “I have always been interested in the brain. There is still so much about the brain that we really don’t know! Neuroscience is an challenging, yet exciting and rapidly evolving field. Yet, regarding mental health particularly, there was very little in my curriculum that covered the individual’s psychological well-being. I was intrigued and perplexed at why something that affects all of us receives less attention than it deserves.”

Thinking back on his collaboration with AMHS-KFLA, Sen recalls the tremendous response from the people with mental health issues who attended the workshops and educational programs, which made him feel empowered and motivated. Sen explains that there is public stigma concerning mental health, and individuals who are suffering internalize this stigma and public attitude, which eventually becomes debilitating. The more efforts we put into overcoming both public and self-stigma, the easier the path to recovery for people with mental illnesses.

Why do people donate to support Sen’s climbing expeditions? I asked Sen this question to learn, in his opinion, what feelings this initiative evokes in members of the public. “Let me provide a personal example,” responds Sen after a pause. “After I launched the campaign, a person reached out to me and shared a story that happened with their family member with a mental illness. This individual did not receive sufficient care because of the stigma within the family. The person who had reached me felt deeply frustrated: ‘I saw that this happened first-hand, but I did nothing out of fear of judgement.’ I think the same feelings are common amongst many of us. We’ve seen something happen, but we’ve turned a blind eye, and we’ve become a part of that stigmatization without even realizing.”

“I’d like to believe that the majority of support I’ve received is because the donors, probably, have looked at my initiative and had a bit of self-reflection on people who are close to them.”

Sen’s current research is looking at how stigma affects recovery in patients with mental illnesses, specifically mood disorders. “Sometimes a patient goes to psychiatrist who - as a trained medical professional - has learned a lot of things. What frequently happens next? The psychiatrists try to fit the patient into the things they’ve learned like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. The most challenging thing for me is to be able to shut my mind off and start listening to people. I must listen to the greatest extent I can. This is the trickiest part in my field.”

In the future, Sen sees himself as a part of the healthcare reform movement. He argues that many people talk about making changes in healthcare, but the term “changes” is still very loosely defined. What are these changes? How and why should they be made? Sen is going to become familiar with the healthcare industry to learn how to make a tangible change in terms of healthcare reform.

“How can we address the changes in healthcare efficiently? We need to have more crosstalk between medical professionals, patients, and industry in order to come up with a unified solution. I’ve done some training within the scientific research, and I have patient experience, but I need to obtain the business vision to make an impact on healthcare. This is my short-term plan.”

Let’s imagine now that we are nearby Mount Kilimanjaro, where Sen has undertaken his climbing expedition. Sen states that it was more challenging mentally than physically. What did he learn about himself after coming down from the mountain?

“The last day before reaching the summit, our group got up before midnight. We all had 3-4 hours of sleep because you were anxious about how this all would be. And we reached the summit at 7:45 am climbing during 8 hours in the -15 Celsius condition, heavy winds, unforgiving pain, and no light. All we could see were stars and our boots. We had no concept of how far the summit was and what time it was. I could control just one foot in front of the other. When I finally reached the summit, it blew my mind that I could accomplish that by simply keeping one foot in front of the other.”

“I wish I could tell everybody, ‘Hey, if you are persistently keeping doing what you love and excited about, you will get to the summit. As for me, I hope to continue putting one foot in front of the other as long as I can to achieve my goals. One of them is to eliminate mental health stigma.”

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Shamik Sen at his base camp.