Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

Improving the quality of mental health and wellness of people living in rural communities

October 27th, 2022
Dr. Katie Aubrecht (at centre)

Contributing to our Health -- A Series About StFX Research Making A Difference In Our Communities

StFX is a leader in health innovation and entrepreneurship in Nova Scotia. In this ongoing series, we proudly shine a spotlight on our health research leaders, research and community health partnerships and their impact. For more on the Contributing to our Health series, click the link below.

Contributing to our Health series

 

“I will consider my research successful if it raises awareness of the critical role that communities play in supporting mental health and wellness. Quality mental health care is person-centered, place-based, culturally appropriate and safe; it improves relationships and conditions. There is no quality without community.” ~ Dr. Katie Aubrecht.

Dr. Katie Aubrecht is Canada Research Chair Health Equity & Social Justice Tier II; an associate professor in the Department of Sociology; and Director, Spatializing Care: Intersectional Disability Studies Lab. Dr. Aubrecht’s research is multi-faceted and focuses on mental health and wellbeing. She was appointed by the Nova Scotia Government Department of Justice to lead an inaugural independent review of the Nova Scotia Accessibility Act, looking at preventing and removing barriers to accessibility for persons with disabilities in Nova Scotia, including people with mental health disability. Her research also focuses on post-secondary student mental health in rural institutions as well as COVID-19 pandemic response and impact on older adults experiencing isolation. Dr. Aubrecht has a long association with the university—the very first year she started at StFX was 2000 when she enrolled as an undergraduate student!

Tell me about your research program.

I lead a collaborative, applied action research program that uses sociological theories and methods to analyze the social determinants of rural mental health across the life span. My overall goal is to improve the quality of mental health care and self-perceived mental health and wellness of people living in rural communities.

* The definition of mental health as disability in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has shifted awareness of mental health from a medical to a social issue, emphasizing the human rights of persons with mental health disability and integrating mental health in social and economic development agendas. My research adopts this definition, using a Disability Studies perspective. In fall 2021, I was appointed by the Nova Scotia Government Department of Justice to lead an inaugural independent review of the Nova Scotia Accessibility Act. While the review is wrapping up, a key outcome is the improvement of work to prevent and remove barriers to accessibility for persons with disabilities in Nova Scotia, including people with mental health disability.

* Postsecondary student mental health in rural institutions has been a focal point within my research program. A research partnership with Eviance: Canadian Centre on Disability Studies has resulted in three in-progress government funded research projects on postsecondary education that will advance Canada’s implementation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Adopting an intersectional human-rights perspective, projects examine pathways through education to decent employment for postsecondary students from diverse disability communities. A unifying premise is that changes in practice to address disparities must be accompanied by changes to the structures and conditions that produce disparities. Early findings highlight the social and economic benefits of supports that are tailored to students with disabilities’ distinct identities and circumstances and that are explicitly oriented to improving the material conditions of their lives (i.e., through leadership opportunities, mentorship, training, community-building, and meaningful paid work).

* Research conducted with colleagues also supported COVID-19 pandemic response efforts by generating evidence about the impact of policy and program responses on the mental health and social connectedness of older adults experiencing social marginalization, distancing and isolation before the pandemic in community-based and residential long-term care settings. These projects were supported by partnerships with service provider and advocacy non-government organizations such as the Alzheimer Society Nova Scotia and Alzheimer Society Ireland, Victorian Order of Nurses, Canadian provincial health authorities, and researchers and trainees from academic institutions across Canada, the UK and Ireland. Our work generated evidence that people with dementia, their families and paid care workers were not receiving adequate or appropriate mental health supports or care prior to the pandemic and that pandemic responses worsened their situations by restricting their access to relationships, resources, supports and services that had previously grounded and sustained them.

* Mentoring and training is central in my research program. With funding from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, I established the Spatializing Care: Intersectional Disability Studies Research Lab. The lab supports capacity development in collaborative equity-oriented research, ethnographic methods, and socio-spatial analyses. It has provided a rich and extensive training and mentorship environment for students and trainees at StFX and collaborating universities.

What impact do you hope the research will have?

I will consider my research successful if it raises awareness of the critical role that communities play in supporting mental health and wellness. Quality mental health care is person-centered, place-based, culturally appropriate and safe; it improves relationships and conditions. There is no quality without community.

What drew you to health research?

I am motivated and excited by opportunities to learn with and from others. As a sociologist, I am attentive to group and organizational culture. I find health research as a social institution fascinating. My primary area is health services and policy research, and I am continually impressed with the cross-sectoral collaborations that occur. It is a privilege to gather with and learn from peers and mentors in other research areas and disciplines, and health research expands this to also include patients and families, publics, community groups, clinicians, providers, system leaders, government, and non-government organizations. Health research introduced me to engagement as a practice, a science, and an art.

Could you tell me about yourself and any awards/accomplishments?

Professional service has been integral within my overall program of work. I am the Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Accessibility Science Lead for the Maritime Strategy for Patient Oriented Research Support Unit, and a member of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) External Advisory Committee on Accessibility and Ableism, vice chair of CIHR’s Institute of Health Services and Policy Research Institute Advisory Board, and former chair of the Policy Domain Area Committee of the Canadian Accessibility Network, board director of Mental Health Research Canada and Eviance: Canadian Centre on Disability Studies, and president of the Canadian Disability Studies Association. I also recently completed a resident fellowship with the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government

How did you become a researcher?

As an undergraduate student at StFX I had professors who encouraged me to ‘hang around’ academia, engaging me in projects and inviting me to imagine myself as a researcher.

What excites you about being a researcher at StFX?

The community and collaborations. There are so many outstanding researchers, staff, and students at StFX, doing such valuable work in diverse areas, working with one another across disciplines and in partnership with communities locally and translocally. The university provides resources to support knowledge sharing and community events and engage students in faculty research programs through student awards and paid traineeships.

What’s something surprising about yourself people wouldn’t know?

When I was a graduate student, I used to write poetry, and have even had a few poems published!

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