Mental Health Research
Scientists and community partners work hand-in-hand to develop evidence-based solutions to treat and prevent mental illness.
By Debbie Lawes
A staggering 970 million people struggled with mental illness in 2019 - including more than nine million in Canada - making it the leading cause of disability worldwide. This public health crisis is only getting worse, compounded by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and over-burdened and underfunded healthcare systems that are ill-equipped to meet an unprecedented demand for diagnosis and treatment.
Universities, colleges, and research hospitals across the country are working with community partners, as well as those with lived experience, their families and caregivers, to develop grassroots solutions that are firmly rooted in evidence. This includes solutions that promote mental health and wellbeing and interventions to tackle mental illness before it starts.
Research Infosource interviewed several scientists and academic leaders to learn what the country's top research institutions are doing to improve the mental health of Canadians.
The suicide rate among Canadian farmers is woefully under-estimated.
"The suicide rate amongst farmers is not well documented," said Dr. Michelle Pavloff, the Rural Health Research Chair at Saskatchewan Polytechnic who is leading a project that recently launched the SaskAgMatters Network, a farm-culture friendly support system led by two patient and family partners.
Patient partners play key roles in all aspects of the Farmer and Rancher Mental Health (FARMh) project, directing its design, advising on how data should be collected, and how the research findings are put into practice.
"They're really running the show," said Pavloff.
Over 100 farmers and ranchers shared their experiences and recommendations for effective mental health supports and how to access them. That data are being used to create a mental wellness toolbox, a one-stop online resource for mental health tools and resources. The toolbox will include a peer support network, addiction resources and free counselling with a psychologist or social worker with a background in farm culture who understands the unique stresses faced by agricultural producers.
A similar community-based project is underway in the northern community of La Loche where local youth are exploring the use of virtual reality to enhance the wellbeing of Indigenous youth living in rural, remote and northern communities.
The goal is to create a culturally based, secure platform grounded in safety, identity and belonging. It would use VR to make mental health resources more easily available and reduce the sense of stigma.
"It may be scary to talk to an adult face-to-face if they are struggling, but with this platform youth will be able to immerse themselves in resources, or connect with other youth, to address a mental health issue. All of our ideas are really being driven by the youth," said Lindsey Boechler, Research Manager at Sask Polytech.
Dr. Madeline Press, Director of Sask Polytech's Centre for Health Research, Innovation and Scholarship (CHRIS), said the amount of research being done at the centre is growing, particularly in the area of mental health.
"Most of our projects at CHRIS relate in some way to mental health because that's where the need is," said Press.
Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières
Dr. Georgia Vrakas worries that patient voices are underrepresented when it comes to expanding the eligibility for Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) to include mental illness as the sole underlying condition.
The clinical psychologist at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR) and member of the Expert Advisory Group on MAiD launched a research project studying the Quebec National Assembly's recent focus on this issue. Just three days prior to her appearance before the committee in May 2021, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
"It took me 23 years to find out that my recurring depression is bipolar disorder."
Vrakas said she's concerned that people will opt for MAiD because the health system has failed to provide appropriate, free and timely mental health services.
"The lack of access and the lack of psychiatric research in this area means it can take a very long time to get a correct diagnosis and some never do," she said. "That doesn't mean we throw up our hands and see mental illness as irremediable [incurable], which is one of the criteria for getting MAiD."
Politicians, she added, need to consider the social determinants of mental health that contribute to people's suffering - factors like income, education, employment, housing and social marginalization.
Her study is looking at how many people with a mental illness provided input to the Quebec special committee, both in person and through an online consultation. She wants to find out whose views carried the most weight with politicians - those of people living with a mental illness or the psychiatrists and other professionals who speak for them. She's still crunching the data but initial findings suggest the voices of those with a mental illness were woefully underrepresented.
Vrakas also appeared last May before a federal committee studying MAiD. Rather than taking "an easy and cheaper solution to a complex problem" with MAID, she urged parliamentarians to invest in promotion and prevention programs, mental health services, psychiatric research, mental health education programs and fighting stigma.
"The results of my case study could be useful for politicians and policymakers when considering future legislation," she said. "We need to find ways to offer people hope, not make it easier for them to die."
The results of my case study on Medical Assistance in Dying could be useful for politicians and policymakers when considering future legislation.
We need to find ways to offer people hope, not make it easier for them to die.
Dr. Georgia Vrakas
Professor, Department of Psychoeducation,
Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières
University of Waterloo
Dr. John Hirdes is part of an international effort to standardize how people with a mental illness are assessed - a critical first step to ensuring they receive the right care, at the right time and in the right setting.
The University of Waterloo public health professor has led the development of several tools for mental health screening through his involvement with interRAI, an international consortium of researchers and clinicians from 40+ countries that develops evidence-based assessment tools for comprehensive care and service planning. He also chairs interRAI's Network for Mental Health and the interRAI Network of Canada.
InterRAI instruments cover all sectors of the health system for people with complex care needs, from newborns to centenarians.
"They're used for nursing homes, home care, mental health, acute care, palliative care, physical rehabilitation, and persons with intellectual disabilities to develop care plans and track outcomes over time," he said. "Over 21 million interRAI assessments have been done so far on over six million Canadians."
Despite the move towards standardization, Hirdes' research found that the services and supports for persons living with mental illness are often fragmented, uncoordinated, and inadequately responsive. The study included recommendations for identifying and responding to mental illness throughout a person's life as they move through the various parts of the health system.
"We showed how we could measure depressive symptoms in exactly the same way in 10 different care settings, from community-based primary care to palliative care," he said. "It provides a holistic Canadian picture of how well depressed mood is managed in different settings."
The end goal, he added, is for countries to prioritize mental health as much as physical health.
"I feel very strongly about the need for us to treat mental health with equal importance to physical health problems in our society. We are doing better at prioritizing it, but we haven't done a great job at quantifying it and understanding it across settings because everybody uses different tools. Standardized assessment tools across the health care continuum would help address that problem."
The Royal's Institute of Mental Health Research
Shortening wait times and improving access to care is a priority for governments across Canada. One way to tackle this challenge is by investing more in research, said Dr. Florence Dzierszinski, Vice-President Research at The Royal, and President of the Institute of Mental Health Research. The IMHR is home to 19 scientists who work closely with about 70 clinician scientists at The Royal.
"When I tell people that research is care, they don't always see the connection. But we can increase access to care through research by bringing cutting-edge research and technology to the point of care. This includes research to find new treatments for mental illness, effective prevention and personalized treatment choices," said Dzierszinski.
Towards this end, Dzierszinski said The Royal is transforming its Brain Imaging Centre into the Clinical Brain Research Centre, with research and clinical care co-existing seamlessly in a patient-centred manner. It will include various hubs of expertise, including treatment, diagnosis and prevention.
Two pilot clinics have already launched, one that uses repetitive magnetic pulses to stimulate nerve cells in the brain to improve symptoms of depression, and one offering a nasal spray form of esketamine (a more potent version of the psychedelic ketamine) for treatment-resistant depression.
"Our esketamine clinic has a research component embedded which helps us take a more personalized approach with our clients. This may include additional treatment options like psychotherapy for people who receive an esketamine infusion."
Engaging patients and their families in bench-to-bedside-to-society research is another priority at The Royal. For example, the past chair of The Royal's Family Advisory Council, Cynthia Clark, was the principal investigator on a Canadian Institutes of Health Research-funded project that explored the current state of caregiver advisor engagement in health organizations. Insights from that project are shared on engagecaregivers.ca, a new platform that provides practical tools for supporting more meaningful engagement of caregiver advisors by health organizations across Canada.
"The secret sauce is really about building inter-professional teams comprising patients and families, clinicians, program leaders and scientists," said Dzierszinski. "When clients are engaged in care and research we see consistently better outcomes. We are redefining how lived expertise can inform and shape care, education and research that advance our understanding of mental health and substance use health."
The secret sauce is really about building inter-professional teams comprised of patients and families, clinicians,
program leaders and scientists. When clients are engaged in care and research we see consistently better outcomes.
Dr. Florence Dzierszinski
Vice-President Research, The Royal
Ontario Tech University
More than 600,000 Canadians are living with dementia. The Alzheimer's Society of Canada forecasts that number to reach one million by 2030, and 1.7 million by 2050.
Ontario Tech University and Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences are breaking new ground in addressing this crisis with the launch last November of the Advancement for Dementia Care Centre (ADCC), a new community-based partnership.
"There's been a real concerted effort that started about a decade ago to look at creating a centre of excellence in Ontario's Durham Region focusing on dementia care," said Jennifer Freeman, Executive Director, Research Services at Ontario Tech.
Technology with a conscience is one of our key priorities.
It's about advancing the use of technologies in ethical and applied ways to help with resiliency, health care, mental health and other avenues.
Executive Director, Research Services, Ontario Tech University
The ADCC, co-chaired by Dr. Winnie Sun (Ontario Tech) and Dr. Amer Burhan (Ontario Shores), builds off the work of a Clinical Demonstration Unit the two institutions created in 2019 which explored how technologies being developed at the university - such as conversational robots and virtual reality - could be transferred to clinical care to help individuals with dementia as well as their caregivers.
"What makes this collaboration unique is we're really embedded in Ontario Shores, and embedded in the community," said Freeman. "We have faculty members and students that are housed there, including two new research chairs."
Not all interventions need to be expensive. One collaboration between the university (Dr. Wally Bartfay) and Ontario Shores (Sheri Hosbourgh) found that personalized music can provide a safe, low-cost and drug-free way to help manage behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia.
Another study co-led by Ontario Tech researchers Dr. Meghann Lloyd and Dr. Robert Balogh, showed that young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities who participated in the Special Olympics were 49% less likely to be diagnosed with depression than their peers.
"This was a ground-breaking study in a traditionally under-researched population," said Freeman, "and it illustrates the breadth of research we do in the area of mental health, which people may find surprising for a university with 'technology' in its name."
While developing the next tech breakthrough is important, she said it's equally important to understand the social and ethical implications of technology.
"Technology with a conscience is one of our key priorities," added Freeman. "It's about advancing the use of technologies in ethical and applied ways to help with resiliency, health care, mental health and other avenues."
Research has already proven that depression and anxiety can nearly double a person's risk of developing dementia later in life. But who exactly is at highest risk?
Scientists at Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute (RRI) are working to find out.
"Not everyone with depression or anxiety will develop dementia but a subset will," said Dr. Linda Mah, Senior Clinician Scientist at RRI, which leads critical research to advance prevention and treatment of dementia. "If we can develop objective indicators that tell us which individuals who have experienced depression are likely to develop Alzheimer's disease or dementia, the hope is we could introduce earlier interventions to prevent dementia."
If we can develop objective indicators that tell us which individuals who have experienced depression are likely to
develop Alzheimer's disease or dementia, the hope is we could introduce earlier intervention to prevent dementia.
Dr. Linda Mah
Senior Clinician Scientist, Rotman Research Institute, Baycrest
One potential indicator is heart rate variability (HRV), the time interval between successive heartbeats which predicts cardiac health. Mah is leading a new study looking at how variations in these intervals - by even just a few milliseconds - is linked to better cognitive health.
Armed with this new evidence, she said it would only take a few minutes for any hospital or clinic to measure HRV using an electrocardiogram monitor.
"If we can detect differences in HRV in older adults who have been depressed, compared to non-depressed individuals, and then link these HRV metrics to cognition, these indices could potentially serve as an objective biomarker of risk for future cognitive decline or dementia," said Mah, who is also a geriatric neuropsychiatrist at Baycrest in Toronto.
Not surprisingly, depression is very common among people with Alzheimer's disease and other dementias. Unfortunately, first-line approaches such as antidepressants and psychotherapy are ineffective in people with dementia.
Mah is studying the effects of a non-invasive procedure, called transcranial magnetic stimulation, to stimulate nerve cells in the brains of older people to improve symptoms of depression. Her lab is investigating a type of TMS, called deep TMS, which penetrates deeper into the brain.
"TMS is an established treatment for depression, but hasn't been studied in older people with depression who also have some cognitive impairment such as mild cognitive impairment or dementia," she explained.
"By stimulating neurons [or brain cells], we hope to increase neuroplasticity and connections between brain cells, which we think may not only help depression but could potentially improve cognition, ultimately improving quality of life for these individuals by allowing them to live independently."
University of Northern British Columbia
Supporting persons living with dementia to age in place and remain active in their community often depends on where they live.
Dr. Shannon Freeman, an Associate Professor of Nursing at the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) who specializes in social gerontology, aims to support older persons to age with grace and dignity in rural and northern BC through collaborative, community-based research. Freeman highlighted the importance of collaborating with and learning from persons with lived experience in northern and rural communities.
"The Dementia-inclusive Streets and Community Access, Participation and Engagement (DemSCAPE) project focuses on how persons living with dementia navigate their neighbourhood environments," said Freeman. "It's not just the physical infrastructure and built environment but also the level of cognitive stimulation. How noisy is it? How busy is the traffic? These are important considerations in supporting the independence and autonomy of persons living with dementia."
Together with researchers from Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia, the DemSCAPE team is developing guidelines for dementia-inclusive communities and an environmental audit tool for municipalities to support safety, mobility, engagement, and social participation of persons living with dementia. The project is being funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada which oversees Canada's national dementia strategy.
The UNBC DemSCAPE team engaged in conversations and outdoor walks with people living with dementia and their caregivers to understand how they are using and navigating their neighbourhood environments in Prince George BC.
"Understanding how persons with dementia navigate their neighbourhoods means municipalities will be better equipped to support residents to age in place," said Freeman, who co-leads the northern arm of DemSCAPE with Dr. Mark Groulx in UNBC's School of Planning and Sustainability.
A partnered and collaborative research approach is key, said Freeman, who is also part of a collaboration with kinesiologist Dr. Laura Middleton to create evidence-based training modules to help people living with dementia and their families learn more about inclusion, physical activity, and healthy eating, and increase their confidence to manage wellbeing.
These resources, co-developed with persons with dementia and their care partners are freely available at dementiaexercise.com
University of Manitoba
A growing number of Manitoba residents now have access to an evidence-based treatment that has become the gold standard in psychotherapy, thanks to research led by the University of Manitoba.
The Government of Manitoba invested $300,000 in 2021 to establish the mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy (CBTm) hub for adults. The five-week online class covers areas such as mindfulness, goal setting and realistic thinking - practical skills that make people more aware of how their thoughts and behaviours can impact how they are feeling, and how they can change it.
"These are skills that anyone can use in their everyday life, with the added benefit that it can also improve mental health," said Dr. Jintender Sareen, Professor and Head of Psychiatry at the University of Manitoba. "There is evidence that CBTm can improve even low-level mental health symptoms among people that are doing well."
More jurisdictions are turning to online CBT classes to meet a growing demand for mental health services. What differentiates CBTm from similar programs is it can be offered online to large classes, as opposed to small groups or one-on-one.
"These are large classes, up to about 50 people, where you learn simple principles and techniques for managing depression and anxiety," said Sareen. "You also have access to self-help tools. It provides immediate help to people who might otherwise have to wait a year in the public system for therapy."
The evidence shows that mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy not only reduces wait times, but also reduces people's symptoms.
Dr. Jintender Sareen
Professor and Head of Psychiatry, University of Manitoba
CBTm is available to all Manitobans, free of charge with no wait time. The program currently operates at 40 sites across the province, including crisis response centres, hospitals and community health centres. An additional $700,000 from the province will expand access and adapt it for adolescents.
CBTm has also been adapted to provide targeted services to specific groups including the 50-plus population, public safety personnel, Indigenous communities, military veterans, cancer patients, new moms and women who are pregnant.
"The evidence shows that CBTm not only reduces wait times, but also reduces people's symptoms," said Sareen. "They actually start to feel better after learning how to do CBT."
A new research centre at McMaster University in Hamilton ON is bridging the gap between health sciences and social sciences to prevent mental illness before it starts.
The Centre for Advanced Research on Mental Health and Society (ARMS) is looking beyond the genetic, biological and physiological contributors to mental illness to understand how social and cultural factors such as inequality and employment contribute to mental illness.
"We hope that by bringing these two camps together in a more holistic way we can take a more preventative approach to addressing mental health problems," said Dr. Marisa Young, Academic Director of ARMS and Canada Research Chair in Mental Health and Work-Life Transitions.
ARMS provides a physical space and financial and other resources to facilitate partnerships between researchers and students from multiple disciplines and community practitioners. It draws on the Faculty of Social Sciences' Community Research Platform, which has fostered relationships with five community organizations: Hamilton Public Library, Canadian Mental Health Association of Hamilton (CMHA Hamilton), John Howard Society of Ontario, YWCA Hamilton and the Centre for Artistic and Social Practice.
"As a researcher it can be hard to get your foot in the door of these organizations, so one of the goals of ARMS is to create a foundation for those networking opportunities," said Young.
For example, ARMS Executive Director Dr. Diana Singh partnered with CMHA Hamilton to develop a resilience-building workshop and peer support program for librarians, a frontline profession that suffered from high rates of stress and burnout even before the pandemic began. The study sought to evaluate the effects of "emotional labour", which refers to how service employees must often hide or suppress their emotions to do their jobs.
Through ARMS, psychiatrists and social scientists are also contributing to a World Health Organization-led study examining mental, substance and behavioural disorders among college students worldwide. Findings will be shared with the Wellness Centre and Student Success Centre at McMaster to connect students with resources and supports.
"We think that will have an impact overall on the university community," said Young, "and hopefully it can be adopted by universities across the country."
Université de Sherbrooke
A new national study is raising the alarm on high rates of psychological distress, depression, suicidal ideation and burnout among members of Canada's legal profession. Led by Dr. Nathalie Cadieux at the Université de Sherbrooke's Business School, with funding from the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and the Canadian Bar Association, this first-of-its-kind study fills a critical gap in the knowledge about the mental health of legal professionals.
Of the more than 7,300 legal professionals surveyed, psychological distress was reported by 59.4%, including 63.7% of female professionals. Moderate to severe depressive symptoms were reported by 28.6% of respondents.
"Now that the different stressors have been identified, the next step is to come up with the right interventions, the right solutions, for addressing this problem," said Dr. Jean-Pierre Perreault, Vice-Rector, Research and Graduate Studies, Université de Sherbrooke.
Faculties that traditionally haven't been involved in mental health research - such as business and education - are increasingly being drawn into the field at Sherbrooke. For example, the Royal Bank of Canada's support for the RBC Centre for University Expertise in Mental Health brings together 30 researchers from multiple research disciplines, including human sciences, medicine, education and human kinetics.
One project developed - the HARDIS program - pools the expertise of academia and the community to meet the needs of children, adolescents and young adults at risk of mental health problems. Efforts are now underway to scale up the program across Quebec.
"Moreover, we will have a big announcement in a few weeks on an important investment in partnership with several other institutions in mental health related to students at the graduate levels," said Perreault.
About two-thirds of Sherbrooke's research in mental health is driven by or with external partners, which Perreault credits to the university's five-year-old business development group's success in securing partnerships with community organizations.
"Our society has to address many questions around mental health and the wellness of people," he said. "These partnerships are essential for ensuring that university research aligns with those societal needs."
Early interventions to prevent severe mental illness in adults don't always work with children and youth.
"This is really an impactful problem because young people don't often accept the interventions that were created for older people," said Dr. Lena Palaniyappan, a psychiatrist and researcher at the McGill University Douglas Research Centre.
McGill is working to solve this longstanding problem with the launch later this year of the Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health.
Most academic units focus on research or training while hospitals focus on clinical services. We're trying to bring
all this into one hub within the centre. It's a new model.
Dr. Lena Palaniyappan
Researcher, Douglas Research Centre, McGill University Douglas Research Centre
"The centre will primarily focus on intentional development of mental health services that support young people, aged zero to 25, as well as the informed discovery of treatments that are developmentally appropriate, not just treatments transposed from older people," said Palaniyappan.
Philanthropic support from the Graham Boeckh Foundation provided core funding for the new centre.
"Most academic units focus on research or training while hospitals focus on clinical services. We're trying to bring all this into one hub within the centre. It's a new model," said Palaniyappan, Inaugural Director of the Centre for Youth Mental Health, which will be housed in the middle of three institutions: McGill University, the Douglas Research Centre and the Montreal West Island Integrated University Health and Social Services Centre (CIUSSS). The region is home to nearly 70,000 young people between the ages of 12 and 2, with 82% of families having children between 5 and 17.
Youth with lived experience have also been invited to help guide the direction of the new centre. "We involve them right from the beginning with activities like priority setting and planning services," said Palaniyappan.
To have a real impact, the centre plans to work with families over a period of several years to identify warning signs of mental illness, such as socially deprived families or families with a history of mental health problems.
"By the time symptoms start in young people, they already have dysfunctions, they've already lost employment, and they've already lost interpersonal connections," said Palaniyappan. "So the right time for intervention is before the symptoms start."
Healthcare worker burnout continues to rise across Canada, further straining an already overwhelmed health system plagued by long wait times and staff shortages. Having more compassionate working conditions would help to reduce this stress.
That's one recommendation in a report released last fall by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) and led by Dr. Colleen Grady at Queen's University.
The report found that "while healthcare workers spend their working hours caring for others, many are challenged to find the time and energy for self-care".
Grady surveyed nearly 1,000 health care workers across the country and the results were startling: 40% reported being burned out, 50% intend to leave the profession, and just 60% are satisfied with the quality of care they provide. Participants included nurses, social workers, personal support workers, physicians and paramedics.
"Healthcare is a high stress environment, that's nothing new," said Grady, Associate Professor and Research Manager with the Centre for Studies in Primary Care and Department of Family Medicine at Queen's. "Our study looked at the structural supports within teams or within organizations for psychological self-care or protection for moral distress."
The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace recently added these two psychosocial factors to prevent psychological harm at work. In response, Grady stressed that in addition to caring for the sick, caring for people that work in those environments must also be a top priority.
"Our research found pockets of excellence. Some organizations are doing really well in acknowledging mental health struggles and putting supports in place. But that's not across the board. You need politicians outlining expectations and mandates requiring organizations to put supports in place for the people that work there."
Grady said the MHCC report includes seven practical recommendations for healthcare leaders and decision-makers related to issues such as leadership development and fostering an ethical climate.
"No one solution will be applicable in every single healthcare setting," she added. "But doing nothing is not an option. Patient care as well as the retention of healthcare professionals should be of utmost concern to any government and organization."
University of Alberta
Entering palliative care is a very fearful and anxious period. For people with schizophrenia the experience is usually even worse. That's because end-of-life care providers often feel under-resourced and unprepared to address the needs of patients with mental illness, falling back on isolation and medication as their only recourses.
"There's a disconnect between mental health care and palliative care," said Dr. Tanya Park, Associate Professor in the University of Alberta's Faculty of Nursing. 'You may have a situation where a patient who has both schizophrenia and terminal cancer is not referred into palliative care from their psychiatric care. For those that do move into palliative care, that mental health treatment team they may have known their whole life don't get included."
The connections across our campus and connections and partnerships beyond our campus are a big part of how we strive to be impactful for mental health and addiction.
Dr. William Ghali
Vice-President Research, University of Calgary
Park said her research is about care and caring: understanding what it's like for nurses to care for patients in psychiatric distress, and what it's like for patients to receive that care. She interviewed nurses and patients to understand this disconnect, and to identify areas where their experiences overlap.
To help address this challenge, Park developed an educational tool that teaches nurses how to listen to patients and what they're going through, and to allow themselves time to reflect on what they heard. The tool uses video clips from the popular YouTube channel Living Well with Schizophrenia, hosted by Lauren Kennedy, a patient partner on Park's research team. Kennedy also used her YouTube channel to recruit patients for the project.
"We tested this tool recently with a small group and found that it made quite a difference - how listening to someone with a mental illness talk about what their everyday life actually can make you think differently about the care you provide," said Park.
The stories from nurses and patients will be turned into videos to help healthcare providers understand the needs people with mental illness face at the end of their lives.
"Our goal is to improve care. So when someone goes into palliative care and says they have schizophrenia, the staff will ask who they've been working with and then get that person involved," she added. "It's about reimaging caring and recognizing that when we connect we do better."
University of Calgary
No one scientific discipline has all the answers when it comes to addressing the complex challenges surrounding mental illness.
That's why the University of Calgary has spent the last 12 years breaking down academic silos that discouraged faculty from medicine or nursing, for example, from working alongside colleagues in social work, urban planning, anthropology, kinesiology or engineering.
"In 2011, the university created cross-cutting research themes designed to pull people out of their faculty silos to create this campus-wide connection which is quite powerful," said Dr. William Ghali, Vice-President Research at UCalgary.
This interdisciplinary approach to brain and mental health research cuts across several faculties and research centres, including the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, the O'Brien Institute for Public Health, Werklund School of Education, School of Public Policy and the Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute.
"It's also important to connect these partnerships with communities, including health systems, schools, and community organizations. These are the groups that translate research into practice," said Ghali.
In the area of children's mental health, for example, UCalgary clinical psychologist Dr. Sheri Madigan works with interdisciplinary teams and community partners to examine the social factors that shape children's mental health, including parental mental health, pandemic impacts, and experiences of adversity.
The recent winner of the Royal-Mach-Gaensslen Prize for Mental Health Research also examines the resilience factors that buffer children from developing mental illness, such as receiving support from caregivers, teachers, or community members.
A longstanding partner, the City of Calgary, collaborates with UCalgary to come up with the evidence needed to tackle pressing municipal issues, from transportation and waste reduction to youth crime, homelessness and immigration.
UCalgary recently worked with the city to develop its new Mental Health and Addictions Strategy. Researchers from different disciplines played a key role in designing the strategy, identifying service gaps in support networks, outreach services and emergency response systems.
"The University of Calgary leaders were a big part of working with the city on developing that strategy," said Ghali. "The connections across our campus and connections and partnerships beyond our campus are a big part of how we strive to be impactful for mental health and addiction."
Toronto Metropolitan University
Post-traumatic stress disorder is one of the most disabling mental health conditions. It is also one of the most treatable.
That message is one you will often hear from Dr. Candice Monson, a Professor of Psychology at the Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) and one of the foremost experts on traumatic stress and the use of individual and conjoint (couples and family) therapies to treat PTSD.
"When it comes to both research and clinical training, she's setting new national and international bars for treating and supporting families experiencing post-traumatic stress injury," said Dr. Steven Liss, Vice-President, Research and Innovation at TMU.
In a project that received early support from the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Institute for Military and Veterans Health Research, Monson brought clinical psychologists together with digital media experts from the IMPACT Lab at TMU to develop an online self-help program for PTSD.
Couple HOPES (Helping Overcome PTSD and Enhance Satisfaction) is an evidence-based program that targets both the individual with PTSD and their intimate partner, recognizing that partners are often the gateway to getting people to seek treatment.
TMU's Department of Psychology has a long history in mental health research. Today, the department has 30 labs that provide research and training space for over 30 faculty and more than 100 masters and doctoral students.
"Our strength in mental health research and psychology has really grown particularly over the last 10 to 15 years," said Liss. "It's one of the most sought out clinical psychology graduate programs in the province, if not the country."
More of this research is being used on campus to help students, faculty and staff struggling with mental health issues. Plans for a new Student Wellbeing Centre include consolidating all health services across the campus under one roof.
"There's a strong interest in student services at that intersection of supporting research, development and professional training," said Liss. "We're looking to create greater synergies and integration across all our initiatives to highlight the important role our university can play in supporting mental health and supporting community, people and families as well as our own staff and student community."
Sheridan College is among a growing number of academic institutions leveraging its expertise to address mental health in our communities. Generator at Sheridan is a driver of this work - researchers, innovators, and changemakers propelling research, innovation and entrepreneurship forward.
"Health and well-being in our communities is a priority for Sheridan, and we continue to work collaboratively with our research partners to find innovative solutions to the challenges they're facing. Our emerging research in the area of mental health, particularly the emotional and cognitive health of the elderly and their caregivers, is an important component of that work," said Dr. Vicki Mowat, Generator at Sheridan's Director, Research.
One example is Dr. Kate Dupuis' research into how arts-based approaches can enhance the health and well-being of older adults and those who care for them. The Schlegel Innovation Leader in Arts and Aging at Sheridan's Centre for Elder Research was awarded a new College and Community Social Innovation Fund grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) to study how art and self-expression can help staff in long-term care homes experiencing chronic stress and burnout.
We're looking at our research from a holistic level, and how our ideas and innovations can support and drive the health and well-being of our communities.
Dr. Vicki Mowat
Director, Generator at Sheridan, Sheridan College
Community partners LUCID, the Research Institute for Aging, Concerts in Care Ontario and Schlegel Villages are involved in CreateMore - a music and meditation-based intervention to support staff and to help caregivers connect with residents on a deeper, personal level.
In a separate project funded by an NSERC Engage grant, Sheridan's Screen Industries Research and Training Centre has partnered with Reimagine AI (an artificial intelligence creative studio in Montreal) to build human-like digital characters for a mobile app that can provide meaningful companionship for patients with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.
The technology also provides caregivers with an alternative and creative way of engaging with patients that mimics their interactions, freeing-up time that is required in their day-to-day work.
"The opportunities to explore and incorporate new technologies in mental health research are incredibly exciting. We're looking at our research from a holistic level, and how our ideas and innovations can support and drive the health and well-being of our communities," said Mowat.
No one is immune from mental illness. At Seneca College, a growing and diverse number of community partners are approaching their experts for help in tailoring solutions for specific groups facing unique challenges, from older immigrants struggling with isolation to post-secondary students at risk of developing a gambling addiction.
"Developing practical interventions is Seneca's sweet spot," said Dr. Namrata Barai, Director, Applied Research at Seneca College. "We're asked to develop guidelines, best practices and policy recommendations that can be used by organizations serving these communities. But it's our partners who work at the grassroots to convert these findings into practice."
In 2020, the Intercultural Iranian Canadian Resource Centre in Toronto partnered with Dr. Bahar Biazar, a professor at Seneca's English Language Institute, to conduct research on how older adult immigrants coped during the pandemic.
The study found that the level of isolation and loneliness experienced by these seniors was more than what most people experienced. It was a problem many seniors reported grappling with even before the arrival of COVID-19, revealing a need for resettlement services that focus specifically on the needs of older immigrants.
"Most immigrants, especially those coming to join the workforce, have access to those services," said Barai. "But senior immigrants face isolation, language barriers and don't have much in terms of social structures. This project came up with several recommendations for improving service delivery for this specific group."
The project was funded through Seneca's Centre for Health and Social Innovation, which includes a focus on community health and mental health.
"Seneca Innovation brings together faculty from different schools who can develop products and services that touch upon health and social innovation," she said.
In another project, Dr. Farah Jindani and a research team from Seneca's School of Community Services collaborated with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health to design and evaluate an online gambling self-help tutorial for college students. The aim is to teach postsecondary students about the fallacies of gambling and what they can do to avoid or decrease their problem gambling.
What does it mean to be resilient in the face of adversity? There was a time when the research community believed individuals were mostly responsible.
Dr. Michael Ungar began challenging that established thinking nearly 30 years ago as a young scholar in the nascent field of social work.
"When I started out I was being rejected by most of the mainstream psychological journals," said Ungar, Founder and Director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University.
Last November, he was ranked the world's number one social work researcher based on the impact of his scholarly writing and citations. He and 22 other researchers from his field also ranked as the most influential among 100,000 scientists globally across all disciplines.
"Psychology and psychiatry research in the past mostly talked about individual qualities like motivation, self-control and grit," he said. "It was social workers, myself included, who pushed this idea of thinking about the contextual and cultural factors that play a much bigger role in resilience and mental health."
Ungar has shown that several factors contribute to resilience, including positive relationships, an extended family, cultural connections, social cohesion, education, housing and social justice, as well as access to resources like affordable recreational programs.
"We're looking at how all these systems collide to either build or tear down a person's resilience," he explained.
Psychology and psychiatry research in the past mostly talked about individual qualities like motivation, self-control and grit.
It was social workers, myself included, who pushed this idea of thinking about the contextual and cultural factors that play a much bigger role in resilience and mental health.
Dr. Michael Ungar
Director, Resilience Research Centre, Dalhousie University
Ungar's pioneering research has also contributed to greater acceptance of using qualitative - instead of only quantitative - methods to better understand the impact of culture and society on resilience.
"Today it would be considered rude and almost abusive to do this type of research without also accounting for people's exposure to risks or their understanding of their own lived experience," he said.
Ungar is on a mission to put his research into the hands of even more scholars. Last year he published his 18th book, and paid the publisher, Oxford University Press, $30,000 to make the text globally accessible online as a downloadable PDF, forgoing any royalties the sales would have generated.
"I did that because I wanted scholars all around the world to latch onto the idea of multisystemic resilience," he said. "If you really want to jumpstart the conversation, you have to be bold and maybe a bit audacious."
Research has its greatest impact when it's shared and used. That was Carleton University's goal during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic when it launched a virtual space to share research that can make a positive impact on people's lives and the broader community.
The Mental Health and Well-being Research and Training Hub (MeWeRTH) brings together researchers, students, and community partners to make research on mental health, well-being, and resilience more easily available to the public.
If you can provide quality, science-based information and education to the public in an accessible manner
then hopefully that information can be used to improve their lives and the lives of others in the community.
Dr. Joanna Pozzulo
Director, Well-being Research and Training Hub (MeWeRTH),
"This is a community with a focus on the multifactorial notion of wellness - not illness - and creating opportunities to provide evidence-based education and research around well-being," said Dr. Joanna Pozzulo, a Chancellor's Professor in the Department of Psychology who created and heads MeWeRTH.
In addition to creating knowledge, the hub also disseminates it in a way that is available and accessible to all. Part of this knowledge transfer includes hosting public events and providing educational opportunities.
MeWeRTH's latest offering was a Lived Experience Luncheon series held virtually that included presentations from a researcher at the Department of National Defence and the CEO of a local camera business who shared their challenges and resilience along their path to wellness.
Always with the goal of providing the audience with the latest research on wellness, a presentation by Dr. Alex Auerbach, Director of Wellness and Development for the Toronto Raptors, discussed the states and traits that support high performance in elite sport and the parallels to overcoming and thriving in everyday life.
"MeWeRTH launched in the middle of the pandemic and much to my surprise it became far bigger than I ever thought," said Pozzulo. "There was a real appetite for this information both locally and globally."
If anyone is interested in more in-depth knowledge on wellness but aren't currently a university student, non-credit courses based in science on a variety of empowering topics are available through MeWeRTH.
"If you can provide quality, science-based information and education to the public in an accessible manner then hopefully that information can be used to improve their lives and the lives of others in the community," said Pozzulo. "Intervening earlier can lead to better outcomes, less intensive care later, and ultimately freeing up resources for others who may need them."
Debbie Lawes, Debbie@dovercourteditorial.ca, is an Ottawa-based writer specializing in science, technology and innovation.