Young Adult Honouree 2022
Suraj Bansal is a first-year Health Sciences student at McMaster University passionate about computational biology research and mental health advocacy. In addition to conducting Leukemia research at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, Suraj advocates for high school students as the Prime Minister for the York Region District School Board (YRDSB) Student Senate and executive of Richmond Hill Mayor’s Youth Action Committee, while also volunteering for organizations like TEDxYouth Toronto. These activities have fueled Suraj’s conviction to identify issues that resonate with him and find an innovative solution to create meaningful change. His community leadership has been recognized by countless awards for his volunteerism issued by municipal, provincial, and federal governments.
Upon entering high school, Suraj noticed mental health discussions being gradually reduced to recycled pamphlets and unproductive conversations with guidance counselors. Without an environment to actively address mental health, he watched the wellbeing of students decline. Mental health became something everyone experienced but felt reluctant to discuss. Determined to improve that narrative, Suraj embraced the elected role of YRDSB Student Senate Prime Minister with a mandate to advocate for 130,000+ students and champion mental health. He yearned to increase mental health awareness, which he did in part by securing $30,000 in funding to launch BLAST (Breaking Labels and Stigmas Together), an annual conference attended by hundreds of students across YRDSB to engage in challenging mental health discussions. In addition to hosting SafeTALK suicide awareness workshops, every secondary school’s student council was provided with the resources to continue these discussions within their school communities.
Previous surveys indicate that nearly forty percent of YRDSB high school students experience moderate-to-serious psychological distress. However, the absence of spaces to destigmatize mental illness have ultimately perpetuated stigmas and isolated these students. Therefore, Suraj imparts that having the privilege to kickstart roundtable discussions on mental health was an empowering and humbling experience in elevating the collective student voice and learning about the visceral adversities, microaggressions, and stigmas that students experience every day. The unexpected rewards for Suraj were the ensuing interactions with students and listening to their powerful, yet heartbreaking stories. Most significantly, Suraj’s position empowered him with the resources and experience to support these students, amplifying their journeys while helping in a tangible way to increase mental health awareness and initiate board-wide initiatives towards destigmatization.
The uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic reinforced the importance of being grateful for access to healthcare, vaccinations, and shelter. Simultaneously, it also unveiled many intersecting structural barriers that marginalized groups—notably BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and homeless patients—face in accessing healthcare and housing. Transitioning to post-pandemic times, Suraj looks forward to practicing gratitude for these necessities while becoming a stronger advocate for marginalized communities to receive equitable access to healthcare, vaccines, and housing.