As I was walking my dog in Central Park the other day, I spotted the earliest signs of plant shoots poking up through the ground. So much anticipation and potential. A lot has to happen before the explosion of flowers in the spring.
Within our Columbia-WHO Center for Global Mental Health, we are also busy getting ready for the summer. Lots of work goes on behind the scenes before our summer interns and practicum students arrive. As we look forward to the coming summer, Jessica Francois, a practicum student from summer 2022 shares what makes this experience so valuable.
A bit about Jessica Francois. Hailing from Boston, Massachusetts, Jessica completed her undergraduate education almost a decade ago and worked before starting graduate school. She is currently enrolled at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health and working towards a Master’s in Public Health and Sociomedical Sciences with a Certificate in Global Health. One of her favorite books is Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, which captures the serious issues of gender-based violence globally – an issue of particular interest and concern to Jessica.
Practicum Experience in Mexico. Jessica worked with Drs. Geoffrey Reed, Rebeca Robles, and Victor Rodriguez on research related to the effects of antiretroviral treatment and mental health among members of the transgender community in Mexico. With Dr. Robles and PhD candidate Tania Real Quintanar, Jessica analyzed qualitative interviews regarding child development of transgender women. She also worked with Dr. Rodriguez at the HIV Specialized Clinic in Condesa where she focused on understanding the relationship between mental health issues, particularly anxiety and depression, and sexual health among HIV clients.
Integrating Quantitative and Qualitative Data. The practicum experience is a research intensive training program. Jessica is focused on honing her quantitative skills and integrating quantitative and qualitative research to optimize the value and impact of public health research. She is very interested in learning more about how mental health impacts risk for other health conditions, specifically how mental health impacts prognosis and disease progression. She aims to bring both quantitative and qualitative data to bear on the topic so that we understand the issues by the numbers and by people’s stories.
Homelessness, Gender-Based Violence and HIV. Jessica worked for seven years with individuals experiencing homelessness and gender-based violence, where she observed that elevated risk of mental health concerns and ways in which the additional burden of mental health programs complicate efforts to address homelessness and gender-based violence for many individuals. In Mexico, Jessica’s work at the HIV clinic reminded her, once again, of the heightened mental health risks for individuals who experience prejudice, discrimination, and marginalization due to life circumstances; in this case HIV+ status. Specific to HIV, she witnessed firsthand how mental health concerns impact HIV adherence and transmission. Jessica hopes to further study the complex interplay among these variables and work on public health initiatives that take a holistic approach to reducing risk and improving overall health outcomes for vulnerable communities.
Reflections and Next Steps. To those considering the practicum, Jessica says, “Do it! I highly recommend applying to the program!” She reflected that the practicum was an opportunity to make long lasting friendships and work with collaborative teams to develop real quantitative and qualitative research skills. Jessica is thrilled that she will be contributing to a publication based on this research. Upon graduation, Jessica hopes to have other opportunities to engage in global mental health work. In the long term, she sees herself working in a leadership role for an organization globally on public health issues. She aspires to work in nonprofit consulting with global health lens.
We wish Jessica, and all our 2022 global mental health practicum students, much success as they approach graduation this spring. And like the sprouts peeking out from the ground, we are busy preparing for 2023’s class of summer intern and practicum students who will grow capacity to advance mental health in various ways and places around the world.