Fang-Chai (Jackie) Cheng has always wanted to take care of people.
In 2006, after receiving her counselling diploma certificate, she knew she wanted to continue her education and further explore counselling psychology. Then she was given a sign, which appeared literally on the side of a bus.
“I was sitting, waiting for a bus, and I didn’t know where to apply (to grad school.) I looked up and there was a University of Saskatchewan ad. I hadn’t even thought about Saskatchewan at all! I had heard it had good graduate programs … I applied and I got in,” she said.
The USask alumna was born in Taiwan and moved to Calgary at a young age. She says her empathetic nature stems from growing up with her family around her.
“I grew up in a multigenerational family. I’ve always had this kind of cultural respect for elders and seniors,” she said.
Cheng began her Master’s in Education at USask in 2006, focusing on school and counselling psychology, but the sudden passing of her father in 2007 was a struggle for her. While trying to deal with her grief, the years after his untimely passing taught her firsthand about the challenges in navigating an overwhelming mental health-care system and the cultural barriers people often face when seeking help.
Her own self-care journey, while challenging, brought insight she now uses as a practicing psychologist. She’s passionate about helping others who might have struggled through the system, like herself.
Today, she works on making mental health counselling accessible to all.
And people are noticing her influential work. Cheng was recently named a Calgary’s Top 40 Under 40 recipient by Avenue magazine, in part for her work developing the Alberta Health Services (ABS) Short Term Assessment and Treatment (STAT) program within ABS’ Community Geriatric Mental Health Service team. The program makes it easier for seniors to access mental health services.
All too often, wait times to see a professional are long. Assessing mental health is not a one-size fits all approach. Cheng saw a need to fill the gap and streamline services. She now works closely with patients by connecting them to the most efficient method of support.
“Not every client that had to wait six months for a therapist needed to wait six months for a therapist. Some of the issues could have been addressed sooner maybe within five or six sessions,” she said.
“I understand that there are wait times in the public health-care system. I just don’t think mental health concerns wait.”
Along with her influential work in public health, Cheng also continues to work at Fercho Psychological Services, providing counselling services to all members of the public. She does psychoeducational assessments for children and adolescents under the team’s Brighter Stars program. The program offers six free psychoeducational assessments to children or adolescents looking to enhance their educational experiences, but may not have the resources available to them.
Cheng says it’s her passion to learn more about people that keeps her striving to help others.
“I just have a wonder about people and humans and why we do what we do,” says Cheng. “What experiences contribute to making us who we are and shaping some of the decisions that we make.”
Clearing the stigma
Despite recent advances, Cheng says the stigma of mental health is still real, especially for seniors.
“There’s still a lot of stigma, because of the generation that they grew up in,” she said. “They just want to keep it private… some feel like a burden.”
But Cheng says she’s beginning to see a shift. Younger generations are becoming very open and comfortable discussing feelings and emotions.
Her advice for those struggling with mental health, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, is to find the right balance and seek treatment if required.
“It really is based on that particular individual, but we need to put a realistic spin on it,” she says. “It’s about finding your own balance that works for you. Asking yourself what you need to maintain your mental health while being socially conscientious and adhering to safety precautions.”