By Dr. CHRISTOPHER J. MORGAN
Long days in class (sleeping in a few), long nights at the library or at home studying at my desk, having more exams than there are days in the week, working a part-time job, trying to find time for the things I enjoy, friends, family, clubs, sports, sleep and doing all of this under the pressure of trying to make the grade academically. That’s how I would characterize my university and professional school years. I would add to that list: memorable and, at times, very stressful.
Last month I had an opportunity to re-visit my university years by spending some time with a number of York University students. I was leading the Health and Wellness workshop as part of the York University Black Student Alliance’s (YUBSA) 9th Annual Black Voices Conference. The conference was held from March 23 to 25 and included workshops on education, gang violence, gender roles, entertainment, relationships, finance and health in addition to a gala event.
During the health and wellness workshop, we discussed the state of Black health in terms of the various chronic diseases that people of African descent are at increased risk of developing, such as, but not limited to: type 2 diabetes, hypertension, sickle cell anaemia and prostate cancer, as well as the various challenges in reducing the burden of these conditions on our families and communities.
I informed them of the various community organizations working to address the health and well-being of members of our diverse Black communities such as the Sickle Cell Association of Ontario, Women’s Health in Women’s Hands, Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention (Black CAP), the Caribbean Chapter of the Canadian Diabetes Association, the Walnut Foundation (men’s health and prostate cancer support group), TAIBU Community Health Centre and others. Many in the group were not aware of the existence of these groups nor the programs and services they provide. However, the students expressed that they would like to see culturally specific health services, workshops and presentations on campus.
The most enlightening part of the workshop for me was when the discussion turned to the health-related issues they were experiencing at this stage of their lives. The first young student to speak expressed her rather harsh acknowledgement of her personal state of health. She admitted that although she may not look unhealthy, she knew she was not doing a great job of taking care of herself. Her assumption was proved correct when she recently went to the gym and realized she was not able to jump rope for five minutes and could not do a single push-up. Furthermore, she confessed that lately she was “putting junk” into her body.
After her testimonial, others quickly shared their challenges around food and healthy eating. The main issue here was a question of availability and affordability of healthy food options. York University has many food outlets for students, staff and visitors but, according to the students I spoke to, those that provide healthy, cultural foods and food options such as vegetarian or vegan and were also affordable were few and far between.
One student spoke of a particular outlet that was close to meeting the criteria but it was in a distant building on the third floor at the end of the hall. Naturally, most of the other students had no idea it existed.
Another student said that when you only have a few dollars in your pocket and you’re hungry and KFC is offering a box of chicken and fries for a couple of bucks and the other outlet has a steamed fish and soup at twice the cost – the economics of the situation dictates your decision.
Convenience was another powerful factor. One student said that when she was in college she had enough time to cook meals at home regularly, but now in university, with less time in her schedule, she often opts for a fast food dinner instead of her home-cooked meal.
We discussed possible solutions to the healthy food challenge; maybe as a student group bringing their concerns about access to healthy, cultural and affordable foods to the university administration; perhaps seeking community partners such as the Afri-Can FoodBasket to provide a variety of affordable, cultural fruits and vegetables to the student population. I was informed that York does have a food basket program currently on campus and, years earlier, YUBSA members had developed partnerships/arrangements with vegetarian and vegan food vendors.
Apart from our discussion on food-related issues, another critical issue raised was the lack of awareness and the stigma in the Black community attached to some conditions. One student who lives with lupus (an autoimmune disease, most common in people of non-European descent, in which the immune system attacks the body’s cells and tissues leading to inflammation and tissue damage) said that many in the community do not know what it is despite that the disease is more common in Black people.
Another student added that we don’t seem to want to talk about eating disorders in the Black community or acknowledge that our young children may have ADHD or behavioural challenges. This comment was followed by another student who said that her uncle has schizophrenia and needs help, however, nobody in the family wants to acknowledge it. One student summarized this situation by saying there is a perception that these diseases or disorders do not occur in the Black community – there is no “Black face” on these things in our community. Others added that it is also viewed as a “weakness” of the family if someone is known to be afflicted with one of these conditions.
The sad reality is that it is becoming increasing clear that people of African descent are immune to very few ailments. It is safe to say whether it is schizophrenia, depression, ADHD, lupus, Alzheimer’s and dementia, HIV and AIDS or any other condition, we get it – and in most cases we are more likely to develop it than anyone else.
In closing, it was an engaging conversation and I thank the YUBSA team for the opportunity to be part of it. It reminded me of the challenges being faced by many of our young adults in college and university. It also identified opportunities for community organizations to partner with student groups to increase their profile among the college/university student population and to strategize together to help meet the health and social needs of our young adults. There is a lot of work to be done. Let us be reminded that many revolutions for progressive change were started on university and college campuses.
For more information about the York University Black Student Alliance, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 416-736-2100 x 60272.
Dr. Christopher J. Morgan is the director of Morgan Chiropractic & Wellness, an interdisciplinary health centre in Toronto, and the President of the Black Health Alliance, a network of community organizations, health professionals and community members working in partnership to advance the health and well-being of the Black community. He can be reached at 416-447-7600 or chair@Blackhealthalliance.ca.