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Ben Lee is a second-year PhD student in the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy who is using his background in economics and anthropology in conjunction with occupational science to pursue research about the lived experience of the daily lives of people with schizophrenia and cultural effects through a global lens. Lee said his non-traditional route to occupational science has given him unique insights into the science of occupation.

Lee’s research interests align with those of his mentor, Antoine Bailliard, PhD, and associate professor. Bailliard focuses on the quality of life for marginalized groups with mental illnesses and the importance of occupation or meaningful daily activity to increase participation in community life. He is currently a consultant and trainer for the Institute of Best Practices at the Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health at UNC-CH.

“[He]…does a lot of work on schizophrenia, severe mental illnesses, as well as sensory experiences,” Lee said. “So it was a really good fit. The programs are an ideal fit for what I want to do.”

Lee, born to Korean parents, was raised in New Zealand. After going to college in Australia, he spent time in a mental health community in India. These different phases of life launched his passion for understanding how culture and linguistics have negative and positive effects on perceptions of schizophrenia and the everyday lives of those who live with this disorder. By studying these cultural differences, Lee hopes to contribute to research ways in which those in Western cultures perceive and experience schizophrenia. At UNC-Chapel Hill, he is part of the Royster Society of Fellows, which provides funding opportunities for students in the Graduate School.

Lee’s research, done in Bangalore, India, shows that people have different responses to their schizophrenia, a response rooted in culture. Lee’s hope to better understand global perspectives on schizophrenia in order to contribute to the body of research. His dissertation research will focus on sensory experiences for people diagnosed with schizophrenia and how it affects their participation in activities of daily living and other occupations.

His passion for breaking stigmas surrounding mental health and treatment led him to his involvement in Stigma Free Carolina. The student-led organization was founded by occupational science alumnus, Nikhil Tomar, PhD, and is aimed at reducing the stereotypes of mental illnesses at UNC-Chapel Hill. By surveying UNC-CH students, Lee and others have concluded that individuals are not typically judgmental toward mental illness personally, but people tend to be more judgmental as a society.

“I think society at large really needs to stop using the term schizophrenia lightly,” Lee said. “One of the things that makes me really frustrated is how people will casually say a thing such as ‘I’m feeling so schizophrenic today. I don’t know what I want to do.’ I think that really dismisses and belittles the kinds of suffering and horrific experiences some people with schizophrenia have.”

Lee said he hopes his research will contribute to quality of life for those who experience schizophrenia whether that be through clinical work, community programs or reducing stigma.

“What I do here could one day have the potential to help someone. That’s what makes everything worthwhile.”

The division is housed in the Department of Allied Health Sciences.

-Brooke Love, communications intern