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Coming from the University of Malaya, Dr. Kavitha Agamutu will be joining the Men’s Health Research team as an intern for the month of July. Working in the Malaysian Ministry of Health, Dr. Agamutu is currently a DrPH candidate with a focus on gender and men’s health. Prior to her arrival, I chatted with Dr. Agamutu about her life, in and out of the research world, and her upcoming visit to MHR.

ER: Hi Kavitha! To start off, can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

KA: I was born in the city of Kuala Lumpur on May 16th, 1983. As both my parents graduated from and worked with the University of Malaya (UM), I grew up in Kuala Lumpur as well and continue now to study at UM. I come from a small family of 4 and have one elder brother. My father is a Professor at the Faculty of Science specializing in Environment and Waste Management, while my mother was in the administrative side as an Assistant Registrar and after retirement has moved to the private education sector. My husband is a Marine Engineer and we have been married for 4 years now though we first met in high school!

ER: That’s awesome! And what about your academic background? Where did you go to school and what did you study?

KA: I received both primary and secondary education from public schools in Malaysia. After completing Form 6 STPM exam, which is the equivalent of A levels, I went on to pursue my MBBS degree through a twinning program which brought me to India for the first two and a half years and the final twoand a half years were completed in the state of Malacca, Malaysia. I received my MBBS degree from Manipal University, India in the year 2008. I have worked with the Malaysian Ministry of Health since 2009. I started my masters in 2017 and last year I graduated from University of Malaya with my Master of Public Health degree. Currently I am continuing with the Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) degree currently at University of Malaya.

ER: Congratulations on your recent graduation! Can you tell me a bit about your research interests and how have they evolved throughout your career and schooling?

KA: My research interests have always been towards family health in general since I started working in the Family Health Development Division of the Ministry of health in 2015. After beginning my Masters course, I initially researched in the field of environmental health. Subsequently, I started to consider men’s health as a research focus mainly due to my two years of working in the Adult Health Sector which covered Men’s health. Men’s Health in Malaysia is still a very new and upcoming concept which is slowly but surely gaining importance. In addition to this, I had the pleasure of working with Prof. Ng Chirk Jenn of University Malaya, and his team of colleagues who are pioneer researchers in Men’s Health in Malaysia and this opportunity caused my interest in men’s health to peak.

ER: Such an interesting path! So, what prompted you to choose to intern at MHR?

KA: The Professional Internship is a course requirement and each student is free to go to any part of the world to intern with the home supervisor’s agreement, at any accepting facility that is related to the student’s research field. For me, after discussion with my home supervisors, the UBC MHR program seemed a perfect place to intern and to learn how men’s health became a focus in Canada and how policies and activities were planned and implemented. In addition to this, the HeadsUpGuys website addressing male mental health issues is close to my current research project in which I would like to create a similar web-based intervention to address male depression back home in Malaysia.

ER: That is great! What are you looking forward to working on here at MHR?

KA: I will be attached to MHR for 1 month during which I hope to learn about the development and implementation of men’s health policies and projects; the process and efforts involved in the development of the HeadsUpGuys website and also other men’s health interventions; I also would like to study the working relationships involved in propelling men’s health forward; and to assist in any way I can, in ongoing studies.

ER: Where do you think this research will take you and what are you planning on doing after this?

KA: My current research project looking into male depression and eventually other mental health issues among men will not end with my graduation with DrPH, but rather it is the stepping stone for further studies and development of more focused interventions to address various health issue among men in Malaysia and perhaps even globally. After the completion of my DrPH, I hope to continue to research related fields of male mental health and continue to bring about effective change.

ER: That is great – so now I am going to switch gears a bit! What are your passions outside research?

KA: Outside of research, I love to read, cook, bake and practice yoga. I also LOVE travelling, be it within Malaysia or around the world.

ER: And a fun fact about yourself?

KA: I am a classical Indian dancer – I trained from 1988 - 2003.

ER: Wow! That is amazing! And to finish up, is there anything else you would like to add about yourself, or your research?

KA: I am extremely grateful to Prof John Oliffe and his team for accepting me to intern with the MHR, which I know to be an opportunity of a lifetime. I am also grateful to my supervisors, the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine of UM, my family and my husband for their unending support and encouragement. I am certain that I will gain a lot from this internship that will benefit not just my studies, but will eventually also benefit my home university and country.

Welcome Kavitha!

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This July, we are welcoming Aussie, and MHR researcher, Zac Seidler for a month of research and collaboration at UBC. As a PhD student and psychologist, Zac works in men’s mental health and is the lead investigator of the Man Island Project, which explores how men access, engage and improve in psychological treatment. In anticipation of his visit, I sat down with Zac to learn a bit more about his life in Australia, his current and future research, and what he will be getting up to here at MHR.

ER: Just to jump right in, can you tell me a little bit of your background?

ZS: For sure! I am a Bondi boy, born and bred; I’ve lived here my whole life. I went to school just around here and have had the same friends since I was 5, which is pretty cool, as there is a really strong sense of community. I went to Sydney Uni and did a Bachelor of Psychology, then a Masters, and now am just finishing up my PhD. It was all through the one school, which is kind of different to Canada and the States where people jump around. So I stuck with my family and friends, but now I am going to flee! I will be going to Melbourne, which is down South – and will be starting work with Movember and beginning a postdoc, which is pretty exciting.

ER: That is awesome! So, what led you to embark on a PhD?

ZS: I’ve got a really strong pursuit for knowledge and have always had it in a way, but there was a lot of uncertainty about doing a PhD, what it meant, whether I had the temperament, the staying power. So that was always in the back of my head. It kind of started out as an experiment, in a sense, and I didn’t really know what was involved.

Leading up to postgrad studies, my honors degree was pretty fun. I got to do qualitative research which definitely informed my clinical stuff. So being a practitioner and having that breadth of research experience is kind of unusual these days – a splitting of the mind, in a way. And between the reading, writing, and seeing patients, as I found out, it can be extremely difficult to balance! But what I realized is that they kind of feed into each other, which was really exciting. I guess that was what I was kind of looking for, in doing a PhD, and it also ended up being a deep dive into one topic – which is extremely satisfying.

ER: Definitely sounds like you found your niche!

ZS: Yes! I always remember in high school, all I ever wanted to do, and it’s a very nerdy thing to say, but I remember going, “I just want a few weeks in a dark cave so I can read all the classics, and just be up to date”, you know? And so I’ve always had that idea of, when I get into it, I’ll have the time and I’ll be able to read and actually understand something in the world. And so now, after 4 years of doing just that in my PhD, I can say, now at the end of it – I know something – which is pretty cool. But as with anything, the more you learn, the more you realise that there are many more unanswered questions then you ever thought.

ER: Yes, congratulations on getting to the finish line of your PhD! On that note – can you tell me a little bit about your doctoral work – what you learned over the past 4 years?

ZS: So, I started out with a really broad focus on men’s mental health and masculinity, as well as gender on the whole, which has intrigued me for quite a while. So I thought, “What’s a way of coming at problems within the men’s mental health space?”, and it turned out to be that there’s this common stereotype when it comes to men’s mental health, which is that men don’t seek help. So I started to deep dive into the literature and that’s actually when I found MHR lead John Oliffe’s name repeatedly coming up and I was like, “Hey, want to supervise me?”, which worked out well!

ER: It sure did!

ZS: So I started out with that systematic review on help-seeking and we realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t that men were not seeking help necessarily, it was that a lot of them were and they weren’t receiving treatment that was engaging to them. So we decided to head down a qualitative route, which took on, “What are men’s’ actual experiences?” No one was actually asking them, at the time, “Do you seek treatment?” Everyone was going, “Just get more men into treatment!” So really, we wanted to know what happens on the other side of the door.

The question then became, “What is engaging?”, and I went back to the literature and did another review, because I am a sucker for punishment, and found out that there is heaps of recommendations, but none of them are evidence-based really. So I compiled all of the recommendations in a scoping review, which I then fed back to the experts in the field through a Delphi study, asking them their thoughts.

ER: Very interesting! So, it was through this doctoral work that you developed the Man Island Project? Can you speak a little bit more to that?

ZS: I started Man Island in my bedroom when I decided that a PhD needed to be carved out from the masses, it needed to be different, you know? I didn’t have any experience in marketing, but I just had the idea that if I was going to get any attention or anyone to take part in interviews, a brand is a pretty good way to go about that. And man, it has been the best decision I’ve ever made. It has taken wings and that is very exciting and very strange to me!

So Man Island is really about how are we going to get guys to talk to us about their experiences and rather than going, “Come and talk to an expert about men’s mental health”, I pretty much went online and went, “Okay, we know many of you have had a bad experience in therapy, come and complain to us.” And that kind of worked.

ER: Oh! So you sort of flipped the script?

ZS: Exactly!

ER: So following the success with Man Island, you mentioned you will be starting a postdoc soon?

ZS: So the PhD is with the external examiners and once that work is finalized I’ll be moving into my postdoc at the Uni of Melbourne. The idea is to create a training program for clinicians based on the recommendations found in my PhD. It will be an online training program, funded by Movember, for how to engage guys in treatment, you know, more readily, embracing their masculinities, their diversities, and their strengths rather than pushing them down.

The training program will have a research project built in, and currently, as I see it, it will have five modules taking about five hours in a continuing education type format for mental health clinicians of all shapes and sizes, to try and teach them an understanding of what treatment looks like, how to actually consider their own gender in how they go about treating people, and how does masculinity have an impact when it comes to assessment, diagnosis, and all of that stuff.

The program will also use case studies of five guys’ stories that I’ve written up as part of the content; a tool to learn through. So we start out with: What is their masculinity and what is your stereotypes when you see this guy, just a picture of him? And then slowly moving down into: How would you respond to him in treatment? Then: How would you diagnose him given, for instance, that he is extremely angry with all of these externalizing symptoms? And then we move into how to use male-sensitive adaptations, emotion-focused treatments, and the deeper considerations.

ER: So in transitioning to your postdoc, you will be moving from understanding the men’s perspectives of being in treatment to more so be focussed on the clinician side of things?

ZS: I think my main takeaway from all of this is that it doesn’t make sense to fix the men when the systems broken. You know, there has been a huge amount of pathologizing of masculinity, and we have kind of moved past that now, which is why the script of, “Why don’t you fit in my box, this is the way that it should work” is no longer warranted. It’s dangerous because guys come in all shapes and sizes with all the types of emotions and vulnerabilities. And really, what we need is to use their strengths to our advantage.

ER: That is a great sum. And so that sort of brings us to the now! This July, you’re coming to MHR! Can you tell me a little bit about what you are planning doing here?

ZS: What I am planning on doing is firstly meeting John Oliffe and John Ogrodniczuk! I’ve had plenty of skype conversations with them and it’s worked very well, but it will be great to meet in person! I also want to get a sense of what a men’s health research hub kind of looks like and what gets done there, because that doesn’t exist here. We need one and I want to create one down the line. I’m interesting in seeing a broadened spectrum of men’s health research, as MHR is also in psychosocial prostate cancer support, smoking cessation and all of that. I will also be working on some papers, like I haven’t done enough of that already!

ER: Just a little bit more!

ZS: Yeah, what’s another few thousand words!

ER: And so, to finish up, what are you most excited about for your visit here in Vancouver?

ZS: Mountains! Hiking! We have no height here in Australia, it is a very flat country.

ER: Any final thoughts?

ZS: I’ve just been very lucky and I want to thank both John Oliffe and John Ogrodniczuk for taking a chance on me without meeting me! It’s been an awesome ride, so I’m looking forward to more collaboration and continuing to work with them!

You can read more about Zac and his work in the About section of our website.

Welcome Zac!

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Join MHR’s Dr. Francine Darroch for the premiere of “Taking Steps: Reclaiming wellness through trauma-informed physical activity programs”, a documentary on supporting physical activity in pregnant and parenting women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Please RSVP to JWEBB@YWCAVAN.ORG or FRANCINE.DARROCH@UBC.CA

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Join MHR’s Dr. Francine Darroch for the premiere of “Taking Steps: Reclaiming wellness through trauma-informed physical activity programs”, a documentary on supporting physical activity in pregnant and parenting women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Please RSVP to JWEBB@YWCAVAN.ORG or FRANCINE.DARROCH@UBC.CA

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