A&S grad worked to destigmatize issues around mental health, helped students find their community

June 10, 2021 by Michael McKinnon - A&S News

Heba Qazilbash always knew she wanted to work in health care but thought that would mean becoming a doctor. She chose U of T because an Arts & Science education allowed her to “mix and match” programs and courses. While here, she fell in love with psychology after taking a course on a whim, and it soon replaced French as her second major. “I think the tie-in between psychology and health and disease is so perfect; mental health and mental well-being are at the intersection of a lot of different discussions around health,” says Qazilbash, who’s graduating with her honours bachelor of arts with double majors in psychology and human biology as a member of Trinity College.

While at U of T, you worked to help destigmatize mental illness. What made you decide that was important?

Finding a sense of community at U of T is difficult for a lot of students. Everybody's experience is different, and while there are so many amazing communities to tap into, not everybody finds the opportunities to do that. There's definitely more that can be done to destigmatize mental illness.

That's why I joined Healthy Minds U of T, a really tight-knit mental health advocacy group. Our purpose is to create safe spaces on campus for students, such as through our monthly “spill the tea” discussions. The other side is learning about your own mental health because you can only help others if you're helping yourself. I’ve realized that prioritizing self-care and taking time to myself is just as important.

I think it was a combination of different personal experiences in my own life and at university that made me realize mental health is something everybody struggles with at times. When COVID-19 hit, it was like everything felt 100 times worse, and I think students really struggled with that transition.

Heba Qazibash inside Wetmore Hall.
Heba Qazilbash in Wetmore Hall at New College, home of the Human Biology Students’ Union meetings. Photo credit: Heba Qazilbash.

Can you tell me about your work with the Human Biology Students Union (HBSU)?

I was so interested in getting involved on campus when I got here in September of my first year. I barely knew my way around campus, but I had seen a post on Facebook, and I thought, “Maybe this could be something good.”

Over the course of my four years at U of T, I can honestly say that HBSU was like my second family, my home away from home. The people I worked with really became friends and mentors. It can be so hard to make those connections, find those resources and meet other students, but the HBSU was an opportunity to do just that for myself and for others.

What would you tell your first-year self if you could?

A lot of things. I think my biggest advice would be that it's okay to not have it all figured out. When I came to U of T, I had a very narrow vision of what my career path and journey were going to look like, what majors I wanted to do, what I wanted to be a part of and what the next 10 years of my life were going to look like. As I learned more about myself, about people and about the community at U of T, I realized maybe medicine isn't necessarily the right path for me. I took a course in public policy, and I just really loved the health policy side of things.

I think if I could go back to my first-year self, I would say that it's okay to figure things out as you go. I changed my majors a few times. Success isn’t linear. It's okay to not know everything.

Where are you headed now?

In September, I'm joining the health promotion program through U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. It's focused on health advocacy, but there's also a social justice and social science piece, which I really like, given my background in psychology. After that, I'm still undetermined if I want to continue to do my PhD in population health research or enter the field as a public health analyst or research analyst, but my general plan is to advocate for better health outcomes for people.

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