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Dean’s Student Leadership award winner helps to destigmatize mental illness

Photo of: Pratishtha Kohli

Pratishtha Kohli. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

International student’s own struggles led to her goal to foster dialogue

When third-year Woodsworth College student Pratishtha Kohli realized she was struggling with her mental health, she quickly realized she wasn’t alone. Other students like her needed help, too.

“I’m a psychology student and an international student. Despite studying the warning signs and symptoms, my cultural background didn’t allow me see them in myself before I was in a downwards spiral.”

It was at that point that that Kohli — who was born in India and grew up in Malaysia and the Philippines before completing high school in Hong Kong — decided to focus on mental health issues.

“My goal is to help destigmatize mental illness and foster dialogue about the positive changes that can make mental health more accessible for both international and domestic students,” said Kohli.

One of the ways she does that is by volunteering with Speaking Your Language — a pilot program funded by the Ontario government and supported by the Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health (CICMH), an organization devoted to enhancing the capacity of post-secondary institutions to support campus mental health and well-being.

The program — a tri-university initiative of the University of Toronto, Ryerson University and OCAD University — aims to improve access to high-quality mental health services by developing and sharing a collaborative model to help culturally and linguistically diverse international students.

“We try to understand how international students and new Canadians view mental health and then apply that knowledge to help them get the help they deserve,” said Kohli. “We provide support groups as well as a multitude of resources that allow students to talk about what’s troubling them.”

Kohli became further involved with the CICMH by attending their student leadership event.

“Her excellent contributions led to her participation in our Flourishing Campuses summit this past November,” said Michelle Green, the project’s former coordinator. “As part of a panel on diversity, equity and inclusion, she encouraged cross-cultural understanding for the staff and faculty attendees by sharing her own experiences and observations of the mental health system.”

Kohli is also very active on campus.

She began volunteering at the Centre for International Experience in 2013 and for the past year has been working as the centre’s Global Lounge assistant where she helps to organize opportunities for international students to connect with one another.

“I’ve never met a group of students and staff who work so well together — everybody comes from a different cultural background and is happy to share their experiences, it’s really been a pleasure working at the Global Lounge,” said Kohli.

Kohli is also vice president of the Indian Students’ Society, a group that aims to celebrate the diverse culture of the nation.

“Most people associate India with Bollywood, curry and IT,” said Kohli. But there’s a lot more to us. I want people to see how similar different cultures can be and how we can integrate the best things from one tradition with others.”

In addition to work in mental health and cross cultural awareness, Kohli is active in fundraising for humanitarian causes in South Asia and is a student journalist with both the Varsity and PEAsant magazine, a publication of the Psychology Students Association.

Kohli is one of two Dean’s Student Leadership Award recipients this year. The award recognizes an Arts & Science student who has played a significant leadership role in his or her extracurricular activities and in so doing has had a demonstrable impact on improving the quality of student experience at the University of Toronto.

Kohli will receive her award at the Faculty’s Outstanding Achievement Awards ceremony later this spring.