CAC Member Spotlight: Meet Andrew


Andrew Kcomt is the Knowledge Translation & Research Manager at the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario (MDAO). He is also the Co-Lead of the CAN-BIND Community Advisory Committee (CAC), and has recently joined the CAN-BIND Executive Team to represent the CAC and lived experience perspective. Learn more about Andrew below.

 

Tell us a little about yourself. 

As the youngest of three, I was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to Toronto when I was two years old.  On our last day at the Hong Kong International Airport, I mischievously disappeared and my family found me trying to board a different flight.  Thankfully, my parents found me and I was able to join my siblings in our move to Canada.

Growing up as a new immigrant, I was a shy kid in public school, but grew more confident throughout my teenage years. After grade 13, I was accepted into the Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto.  I had hardworking immigrant parents, but we did not have a lot of money. I worked part-time jobs in order to pay for my tuition and housing, including as a weekend housekeeping cleaner at Sunnybrook Hospital.  During my final year of pharmacy school, I was offered a practicum placement at Sunnybrook, where I confused many of the staff, as I suddenly went from floor cleaner to wearing a clean, white lab coat.

After graduation, I was employed as a staff pharmacist at the Hospital for Sick Children, before being recruited to provide drug information to health care providers.  My career grew as I moved into clinical research, which included travelling to various countries, which I very much enjoyed. 

As life progressed, I started to struggle with my mental health and I pushed away my social and family supports as I was not open about my personal struggles with anxiety and depression.   My career became less satisfying, and it felt like I was about to “crash and burn” because it was difficult to find the courage to reach out for help.  As days felt longer and darker, I became increasingly reclusive.  When I finally admitted that I needed support, I moved back home.  Through the patience and love of my family and the amazing help of my family doctor, I took the first step on my journey towards recovery.  At our first appointment, my family doctor provided me with two options to improve my mental health – antidepressant medication or talk therapy.  As much as I disliked talking about my struggles, I chose cognitive behavioural therapy, which continues to help me on a daily basis.

A defining part to my recovery was when I purchased my first entry-level DSLR camera.

A defining part to my recovery was when I purchased my first entry-level DSLR camera.  I had just enough money saved to buy one, and it got me out of the house.  My social networks increased through joining photography groups, where I learned how to use my camera and met a wonderful group of photographers.   This led me to my love of capturing candid moments in street photography, and allowed me to view the world in positive ways.   My other favourite pastime, as a long-time HotDocs member, is watching documentary films.  It appeals to me in a visceral way. Documentaries provide insight into different places and lifestyles that I’d otherwise have very limited exposure to, and provide me with a better understanding of other perspectives in life.

This journey has led me to my current position as the Knowledge Translation & Research Manager at the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario (MDAO). I am also the Co-Lead of the CAN-BIND Community Advisory Committee (CAC).

 

How did you learn about the CAN-BIND CAC? When did you join?

The short answer is I’ve been a part of the CAC from the very beginning. The long answer is part of my story about my first day at the MDAO. I started as a participant in a depression and anxiety peer support group!

I remember it being a dark and cold winter evening while I was still recovering from my depression.  After promising my doctor and family to attend a support group, I anxiously approached the building of the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario.  As I stood at the entrance, I tried entering the building, but the door was locked.  I took it as a sign to not attend. I took a deep breath and started to turn to walk away.  Suddenly, someone opened the door on their way out, and I reluctantly ended up going to the sixth floor to my very first MDAO depression and anxiety peer support group. I didn’t say anything that night, but I listened. I just listened and finally realized that others were experiencing similar struggles as me.

I continued to attend the peer support groups and learned more about the free services offered by MDAO. I signed up for an 8-week wellness and recovery program, where the lived experience facilitators were incredibly kind and understanding.  On day one, we were randomly paired with another participant and asked to go through an introduction exercise to share our mental health struggles. I nervously introduced myself to a friendly but wary-looking woman, and we soon learned that we both graduated from health care fields.  Our connection grew stronger, and today she is one of my best friends. We’ve both recovered from some of the darkest moments in our lives. 

The MDAO motto, “talk to someone who’s been there”, really resonated with me, and it still does today.

The MDAO motto, “talk to someone who’s been there”, really resonated with me, and it still does today. Simply put, it means talking to someone who gets it. I started volunteering at the MDAO, where I met the wonderful Ann Marie MacDonald, Executive Director, who ended up hiring me on to the team after my research background was made known. From there, I met Dr. Sagar Parikh, who was one of the Clinical Consultants at MDAO at the time. He is currently the John F. Greden Professor of Depression & Clinical Neuroscience and Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Michigan. Sagar is also the Lead of CAN-BIND’s Knowledge Translation Platform, and he later suggested that I join the CAN-BIND CAC. I’ve been a part of the committee ever since! 

 

How would you describe your experience being on the CAC so far? 

I very much enjoy being part of the CAC, and appreciate the opportunity to learn from Sagar and the expertise of the other CAC members. I have met an amazing, smart, and understanding group of people. We have learned so much from each other through sharing our different experiences in life. To me, it all goes back to the community aspect and forming partnerships rather than working in silos. I don’t care how smart you are. You can’t do it by yourself, especially when it comes to mental health.

I don’t care how smart you are. You can’t do it by yourself, especially when it comes to mental health.

 

What is something about depression that you want people to know?

I want people to know there is always hope, and there is help out there. People are much more open about mental health these days, but there’s still a lot of stigma. In my role at MDAO, I still see a lot of participants who are struggling because of the stigma around mental illness.

I also want people to know the importance of sharing their stories. I am not always comfortable sharing mine, and I could even go so far as to say that I hate sharing it. But it is important for me to do, as I found it provides people with hope in their own recovery. What makes me feel grateful is when people from peer support groups and other programs at the MDAO come up to me and let me know that sharing my story made an impact on them. There are also many cultural barriers to talking about mental health. When there is no opportunity to talk about your mental illness, it’s not good for a person’s recovery.

 

Why is depression research important to you?

Depression research is important to me because people should make informed, evidence-based decisions about their health care, and that isn’t possible without research.

 

What area of depression research are you most interested in? 

I’m most interested in prevention and wellness research, including research on talk therapies. I’m also very interested in research that is driven by community advisors. Having lived experience partners in research is critical to prioritizing research according to what’s important for those living with depression. This is especially important for publicly funded research. The knowledge translation aspect—or making the research evidence understandable—has also become a passion of mine.  

 

Do you have any final thoughts?

I would like to take this opportunity to express how grateful I am for all of the people I have met, including our incredible staff and volunteers at the MDAO, and the CAN-BIND CAC.   My role has also given me the privilege of collaborating with Janice Pong and Trehani Fonseka, whose intelligence, expertise, and heartfelt understanding of the difficulties of mental health challenges, helped us produce the CHOICE-D Patient and Family Guide to Depression Treatment that is free for the community.  Please share the online copy using this link: http://bit.ly/choice-d and keep your evening schedules open on October 11, 2018 for a free public event to promote the guide, thanks to our friends at the Ontario Brain Institute.

Finally, if you or a loved one is struggling with mental health, please remember that there is always support and hope out there.

By Andrew Kcomt