If there’s one thing Emma Seevak’s studies at Harvard University have taught her, it’s that formal education is hardly a requirement for providing supportive, compassionate mental healthcare to those who need it most.
Through research grants to four countries, the 21-year-old from Piedmont, California, has seen firsthand how empowering lay people to provide mental health services can make a positive impact on their communities. She’s the principal investigator of a qualitative project on peer mental health workers in New York City, and has previously studied the experiences of community mental health workers in India.
Seevak also took last semester off from her formal studies to spend time in rural Chiapas, Mexico, where she researched the psychosocial needs of people with chronic psychosis.
“I want to encourage the world to respect community health workers’ expertise, which comes from lived experience, whether it’s the experience of having had mental health conditions themselves or of living in the communities that they serve,” says the second-semester junior.
“I want community health workers to be well supported by health professionals and paid reasonable salaries for their important work in reducing health disparities and expanding access to care.”
We asked Seevak about her studies, goals, and obstacles. Here’s what she had to say.
This interview has been edited for brevity, length, and clarity.
I was drawn toward sociology because I wanted to explore the factors that shape individual experiences, interpersonal relationships, and societies. Although I didn’t know about sociology before entering college, I quickly came to appreciate the field’s interdisciplinary approach and lens of questioning.
My first exposure to global mental health was the summer after my first year of college, when I had the opportunity to work in Goa, India, as an intern at Sangath, a nongovernmental organization that has developed much of the evidence base of the feasibility and effectiveness of empowering lay health workers to deliver mental healthcare.
While in India, I realized that mental health combines my academic interest in the social determinants of health with my personal values of fostering empathy and providing people with access to support. Global mental health is a young and growing field, and it felt like an exciting world to enter.
I want to live in a world in which everyone has access to high-quality mental healthcare. I want to create systems of mental healthcare that reflect the needs and desires of service users, their families, and their communities.
While specialists (like psychologists and psychiatrists) will continue to be an important part of these systems, the future of mental healthcare should empower lay people (including service users and their family members) who do not have previous training in mental health to deliver treatment and support to their communities.
In order to work toward this vision, I hope to serve as a clinician while also contributing to research and implementing innovative policies and programs. I hope that by working as a direct care provider and listening to my patients, my ideals will be better aligned with the needs and hopes of the people and communities I serve.
Working in mental healthcare can be draining. It hurts my heart to watch people suffer, especially when they don’t have access to the services or support that could help them heal.
I’ve seen this distress in diverse settings, from my university campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the rural mountains in Chiapas, Mexico. It exists because much of the world lacks the infrastructure of a functional health system; because even places with high-quality health systems deny care to the most vulnerable; because people lack access to things that allow them to lead full and fulfilling lives, like food, shelter, education, and jobs with decent pay, to name a few.
One way to address this challenge is to change the systematic issues and misdistribution of resources that cause people to suffer. Change can come from a variety of sources, from grassroots movements to federal policies and international nongovernmental organizations. Making small steps toward change can provide hope.
I’ve also started to learn the importance of drawing boundaries between my work and my personal life, and practicing self-care. While recognizing the privilege of being able to take a break, I believe it’s crucial for my long-term ability to serve and push for change.
The first thing I’d like to say is thank you for the incredible work you are doing. In my perspective, community health workers are the backbone of so much important work and social change worldwide.
You as community health workers are knowledgeable about your communities and your work in ways that I am not. However, from serving as a peer counselor at my university, I can relate to some aspects of your work. Relying on my fellow peer counselors and spending time doing things I enjoy, like running, baking, and spending time with friends, has been central to my own self-care, especially after challenging counseling sessions. I hope that you are able to find support and relaxation as well.
I saw an unattributed quote recently that said, “Give yourself the same love and care you wish for your patients.” I fully agree, and I’d like to add: Give your patients the same love, care, and access to opportunity that you wish for yourself.
Joni Sweet is a freelance writer who specializes in travel, health, and wellness. Her work has been published by National Geographic, Forbes, the Christian Science Monitor, Lonely Planet, Prevention, HealthyWay, Thrillist, and more. Keep up with her on Instagram and check out her portfolio.