Our Research

We respond to the current mental health needs of Canadians and advance outcomes-based research, by engaging our stakeholders — people with lived experience, governments, mental health care agencies and service providers — to inform and guide our work.

How can we use technology to enhance or support child and youth mental health in Ontario — and, ideally, beyond?

This research challenge led to a partnership between MHRC and the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health in 2019 and the creation of the Child/Youth e-Mental Health Impact Grants, with another collaborative research project in the works!

MHRC and the Centre, like-minded organizations that embrace innovation and collaboration, co-funded three $100,000 research grants to advance evidence-based digital solutions that will help children, youth and families overcome barriers to seeking help.

Many high-quality, outcomes-focused research proposals were received and reviewed by an arm’s length Advisory Group, whose diverse membership included an IT consultant, a person with lived experience, program delivery professionals as well as researchers.

Three inventive projects were chosen for their potential for broad and deep impact:

  • A digital intervention pilot to address the mental health issues of siblings of children with special needs, led by co-principal investigators Dr. Shannon Scratch, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, and Dr. Alex Elkader, Kinark Child & Family Services

Siblings of children with disabilities are at much greater risk for developing mental health problems, including social, emotional and behavioural problems, and are frequently overlooked when families are provided with services. Often siblings “suffer silently” due to feeling guilt and the need to be perfect to avoid adding stress on the family. SibworkS is a in-person group intervention that exclusively focuses on the cognitive behaviour of siblings. The six-week program strengthens their perceived social support, self-esteem, problem-solving skills and adaptive coping behaviors, while promoting positive sibling relationships. A randomized control trial showed that SibworkS led to overall improved emotional and behavioural functioning in siblings, with a medium to large effect post-intervention that was maintained through the three-month follow-up period. This grant will help to develop i-SibworkS into a virtual alternative that will be tested in three different cities in Ontario, with the ultimate goal of scaling its reach and accessibility.

  • A SNAP app to help children with behavioural problems and their families develop coping skills at home, led by co-principal investigators Dr. Leena K. Augimeri, University of Toronto & Child Development Institute, and Dr. Lynn Ryan MacKenzie, Child Development Institute

Stop Now And Plan (SNAP) is an in-person, gender-specific program that teaches children ages 6 to 11 with behavioural problems, and their parents, how to make better choices “in the moment.” SNAP teaches boys and girls how to increase their emotional regulation and problem-solving skills. It is highly regarded as “the most fully developed and longest-sustained intervention to date for juvenile delinquents” and “the best evidence-based program for aggressive children with serious violent and chronic potential.” This grant will help to develop an accessible app version of SNAP to help children and families develop coping skills at home – more important than ever because of COVID-19. The research team will engage youth who have participated in the SNAP program to co-design the user-friendly app and its interactive programming. They will then pilot test the app among two cohorts of youth from both Northern and Southern Ontario, and track and evaluate its effectiveness.

  • A virtual parent-led support group for parents of children and youth with eating disorders, led by co-principal investigators Dr. Jennifer Couturier, McMaster University, and Erica Crews, Danielle’s Place/Reach Out Centre for Kids (ROCK)

The benefits of parent-led peer support groups are well-documented in the literature for children with disabilities: they provide a sense of belonging and help parents to better deal with the world and advocate for their children. However, for parents of children and adolescents with eating disorders, there are no reports that examine the acceptability, cost and parent outcomes (caregiver burden, needs and self-efficacy) of participating in a virtual parent-led support group. This grant will address this knowledge gap by establishing two virtual parent-led support groups, one in Northern Ontario and one in Southern Ontario. The investigative team, using qualitative and quantitative methodology, will track and evaluate the immediate and long-term impact of the group sessions on the participating parents and their children. Employing elements of caregiver groups, these parent-led groups aim to address social isolation, teach coping skills and instill hope; if successful, this group model could be scaled and made accessible to parents across Ontario and beyond.

 

Mental illness affects 1.2 million children and youth in Canada. In Ontario, 1 in 5 children and youth will experience some form of diagnosed mental health problem; yet 5 out of 6 of these children and youth will not receive the treatment they need. These numbers don’t even capture a significant group of children and youth who “fly under the radar” of diagnosis or detection.

Funding these three scalable projects will provide more support for children and youth at critical times in their development, increasing their opportunities for future success in school, personal relationships and career choices.

USING INNOVATIVE SOLUTIONS TO COMBAT CANADA’S YOUTH SUICIDE CRISIS:

The narrative of Harry Potter to teach resilience to middle schoolers and
online group interventions to support youth living with psychosis

How do we support our youth to be more resilient and prevent instances of suicide? That was the impetus behind MHRC’s partnership with the Institute for Advancements in Mental Health (IAM) and the creation of the first-ever, Canada-wide Mental Health Innovation Prize.

Launched in fall 2019, the Innovation Prize attracted unique solutions to address a long-standing mental health crisis: that suicide still remains the second leading cause of death for young people in Canada. The Canadian Centre for Suicide Prevention cites a positive school environment as one of the protective factors against suicide, along with peer support and self-esteem – all key elements of the work being done by our winners: Dr. Mark Sinyor and Dr. Christopher Bowie.

ABOUT OUR WINNING PROJECTS

Using the narrative of HARRY POTTER to teach coping skills and resiliency in elementary schools

DR. MARK SINYOR

A free three-month curriculum based on the third Harry Potter book – embedded with author J.K. Rowling’s own experience using cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to overcome depression – teaches coping skills and prevention to students in elementary school. Sinyor and his team have been developing this curriculum based on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban over four years in partnership with educators, students and Google. Tested with an Ontario school board, the curriculum is being taught in Canada’s largest and most diverse school board: the Toronto District School Board.

With the help of Google Canada and partners, an online version of the curriculum is now being developed, with the goal of eventually rolling it across Canada and globally. Sinyor’s proposed research will expand this curriculum into an online format and the grant will examine its effectiveness by assessing students pre-curriculum and two periods post-curriculum (immediately after finishing and three months out). Sinyor’s research goal is to reduce suicidality, symptoms of depression and anxiety, and improve the well-being of students by teaching them self-awareness and coping behaviours in their formative years.

Giving remote communities a BOOST by integrating cognitive behavioural therapy with peer support

DR. CHRISTOPHER BOWIE

Be Outspoken and Overcome Stigmatizing Thoughts (BOOST), developed by Bowie and his team, is a group intervention that integrates cognitive behavioural therapy with peer support to improve internalized stigma, self-esteem and the quality of life for young people with psychosis. Co-created and co-facilitated by people with lived experience, the therapy consists of eight sessions delivered online over four weeks to individuals with psychosis living in rural or underserviced communities and will involve three provinces.

Bowie’s proposed research will expand this intervention: adding therapeutic methods that address suicidality, incorporating materials that family and friends of the person with psychosis can use, and doing follow-up assessments over the long term. His research goal is to examine how this group treatment for self-stigma affects suicidal thoughts and behaviours.

ABOUT OUR WINNERS

Dr. Mark Sinyor is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. He is a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and an Associate Scientist at the Sunnybrook Research Institute. His clinical focus is on the treatment of mood and anxiety disorders, and he is the founder of PROGRESS (the Program of Research and Education to Stop Suicide) at Sunnybrook. His main research focus is suicide prevention and mental health literacy, and he has developed a curriculum for middle schoolers teaching distress tolerance using the Harry Potter novels. His research has been featured in Time, BusinessWeek, CBC’s the National and Radio One.

Dr. Christopher Bowie is Professor in the departments of Psychology and Psychiatry at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He is also Head Consulting Psychologist for Heads Up! which is an early psychosis intervention program in Kingston, as well as a Clinician-Scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. His research focuses on cognition and functioning outcomes in schizophrenia and mood disorders, with an emphasis on early intervention and development of novel treatments. He has been the recipient of several awards including the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation’s Early Researcher Award and the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation’s Independent Investigator Award.

ABOUT THE MHRC x IAM PRIZE CHALLENGE

This unique partnership between IAM, a community-based innovation platform, and MHRC, a leading national mental health research organization, highlights the urgency to develop solutions around the growing and urgent issue of youth suicide, especially among youth living with psychosis. This donor-invested prize of $50,000 each challenged leading teams in the innovation, research and health care communities to develop interventions and prototypes.

Alberta, Atlantic Canada & Ontario report highest increase in anxiety & depression levels since COVID-19, says report of survey findings

Alberta, Atlantic Canada and Ontario report increased levels of anxiety and depression that are the highest in Canada, while Quebec reports the lowest increase in both anxiety and depression levels. For those Canadians recently unemployed, 57% cite the negative impact of job loss on their mental health.

These and other key findings are featured in both the summary and full report of the survey “Mental Health in Crisis: How COVID-19 Is Impacting Canadians,” released on May 19 by Mental Health Research Canada.

MHRC’s survey has been designed to capture Canadians’ perception of their level of anxiety and depression, and to identify and evaluate the factors that influence mental health. This inaugural survey is part of a year-long effort to track the COVID-19 mental health crisis.

“We are committed to advancing impact-focused research to help Canadians achieve better mental health, especially through this pandemic. To inform stakeholders, governments and other partners in the sector, MHRC has committed to producing a series of surveys over the next year,” says Akela Peoples, CEO of MHRC.

In addition to the quadrupling of high levels of anxiety and doubling of high levels of depression reported earlier in the survey’s initial findings, MHRC’s survey shows:

  • Residents of Alberta report the largest increase in high anxiety levels (+20%), while residents of Ontario (+17%), Atlantic Canada (+16%) and BC (+15%) report a similar increase, and Quebec residents report the smallest increase (+10%). Similarly, high depression levels increase the most among residents in Atlantic Canada (+12%), followed by Ontario and Alberta (+8% each), and least among Quebec residents (+2%).
  • 28% of Canadians have indicated an increase in the consumption of alcohol per week since the onset of COVID-19, but feel the impact on their mental health is relatively neutral at this point.
  • Canadians with children younger than age 18 note a higher positive impact on their mental health from interactions with family members in their household (41%) than those without children (30%), despite an increase in non-physical conflict (36%) compared to Canadians without children in their household (23%).
  • Urban residents report feeling significantly more supported by their employers in their mental health needs (before COVID-19: 51%; since: 53%) than rural residents (28%; and 34%, respectively).
  • 57% of recently unemployed Canadians report their mental health is negatively impacted by job loss.
  • The next highest concern for employed Canadians is the economic downturn (48%), followed by having a family member lose their job (43%), losing work hours or pay (42%) and being laid off (38%).

“What our survey tells us is that COVID-19 is impacting the mental health of Canadians in notably different ways, and that Canada’s recovery will require solid data to inform policy-making and effective services and programs for Canadians,” says John Trainor, Chair of MHRC’s Board of Directors and Adjunct Professor, Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto.

The survey was conducted in both official languages by Pollara Strategic Insights for MHRC from April 22 to April 28, and engaged 1,803 Canadians 18 years of age or older and all provinces and territories.

Current Research Project

GLOBAL STUDY OF MENTAL HEALTH RESEARCH FUNDERS

In partnership with the International Alliance of Mental Health Research Funders

MHRC funded the Canadian component of the study

This first-ever global study will examine mental health research spending around the world. It will provide a valuable baseline of how much is being spent on mental health research, what disease areas are being funded, and how much is being spent on research activities from basic biomedical to health services. Findings of the study are expected to be released by the end of summer 2020.

Completed Research

FELLOWSHIPS, 2016-2019

Dr. Philip Gerretsen – New Investigator Fellowship

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

“The clinical and functional imaging effects of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) on illness awareness in schizophrenia”

This study explores the clinical and functional imaging effects of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) on illness awareness in schizophrenia, arguably the most treatment-resistant manifestation of the disorder. Schizophrenia is ranked 5th among leading causes of disability in industrialized countries and is estimated to cost Canada over $7 billion per year. Impaired awareness of illness, occurring in up to 95% of patients with schizophrenia, is associated with medication non-adherence, poorer functioning and higher risks of relapse, re-hospitalization and violence.

 

Dr. Wataru Inoue – New Investigator Fellowship

Western University

“The role of microglia in synapse refinement during the neuroendocrine adaptation to stress”

Chronic stress is a major risk factor for serious mental illnesses including major depression, post-traumatic stress disorders and memory impairment. Stress-related disorders have emerged as epidemic, estimated to cost $31 billion a year in lost productivity, and billions more in direct medical costs in Canada. How does chronic stress impair our mental health? A common theme in stress-related disorders is that persistent activation of the stress response rewires our brain (known as neuroplasticity) and causes maladaptive forms of neuroplasticity that underlie various disease symptoms.

 

Dr. Nathan Kolla – New Investigator Fellowship

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

“A Multiple Biomarker Approach to Investigating Psychosocial Treatment Response in Justice-Involved Youth with Conduct Disorder”

Some youth in conflict with the law have a history of violence. Many also display conduct disorder, which is a serious behavioural and psychiatric illness associated with disruptive and aggressive behaviour. Fortunately, talk-based therapies have been shown to reduce violence and aggression. The Stop Now And Plan (SNAP) model, one of the best-studied treatments, teaches young people to make better choices in the moment and works to reduce impulsive behaviour, which is a strong risk factor for violence in this population. The SNAP Youth Justice model has been developed for youth in conflict with the law. We propose using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to learn how this SNAP Youth Justice model impacts brain function in treated youth. We’ll also be studying how it affects morning cortisol levels, a stress hormone. 

 

Dr. Marina Milyavskaya – New Investigator Fellowship

Carleton University

“Self-critical perfectionism in the transition to university: Identifying links to depression and anxiety and designing a targeted intervention”

The transition to university is a stressful time for new students. Many develop mental health problems that can interfere with their schoolwork, social life and general functioning. The study’s first goal is to determine whether self-critical perfectionism represents a risk factor for experiencing increased depression and/or anxiety in the first year of university. Incoming students will complete questionnaires before the start of the semester,  halfway through and at the end. This data will be used to identify when a person is at higher risk of developing depression or anxiety, and when self-critical perfectionism becomes a real clinical concern. The study’s second goal is to design and test two different intervention components for people with high levels of self-critical perfectionism: teaching students how to cultivate self-compassion and how to cope with stress.

 

STUDENTSHIPS, 2016-2019

Lauren Drvaric

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

“The Power of Resilience: Positive Psychotherapy for Youth at Clinical High-Risk (CHR) for Psychosis”

Research has shown that clinical high-risk (CHR) youth are in need of novel treatments to help them cope with stress and the symptoms they experience. This study will look at a newly developed therapy known as positive psychotherapy, which helps young people identify their individual character strengths to build resilience. The study will evaluate its effects in CHR youth to reduce stress and psychosis-risk syndrome symptoms compared to standard treatment. It is hoped that positive psychotherapy will provide CHR youth with useful tools to help them navigate the challenges of daily life.

 

Nick Kerman

University of Ottawa

“The Effects of Housing Stability on Service Use among Formerly Homeless Adults with Mental Illness and Substance Abuse”

Mental illness and substance abuse are pervasive problems among the chronically homeless. This study  explores how the use of health, social and justice services differ during transitions from homelessness to housing compared to those from housing to homelessness. It will also examine the differences in service use between participants who achieve housing stability and those who experience housing difficulties and recurrent homelessness. The study will focus on 68 individuals who have been diagnosed with a mental illness and a comorbid substance-use problem, and who are homeless at study entry. Half of the sample will receive housing first (affordable housing in the form of independent apartments with intensive case management); the other half will receive standard care. Participants will be followed over a 24-month period.

 

Danijela Maras

University of Ottawa

“How do avoidant attachment and depression impact quit smoking rates among HIV+ people”

This study will compare nicotine use and depressed mood among HIV+ people as a function of their avoidant attachment relational style. It will also examine how changes in depressed mood and attachment avoidance are related to quit smoking and nicotine use. This study is part of a larger randomized trial that examines the use of two medications (varenicline and nicotine patch), each with and without additional quit smoking counselling tailored for HIV+ smokers. This study, supported by the CIHR Canadian HIV Trials Network, has recruited participants across eight Canadian sites who will complete questionnaires assessing their avoidant attachment level, depressed mood and nicotine use at baseline, then every four weeks for 24 weeks. Nicotine use is also confirmed using a machine that measures carbon monoxide levels.

 

Carley Pope

Lakehead University

“A Preventative Approach for Postpartum Depression: A Randomized Controlled Trial of a Mindfulness-Based Intervention”

Postpartum depression is a serious mental health disorder that affects up to 20% of women who have recently given birth. Furthermore, up to 84% of new mothers experience the “baby blues,” which is a briefer period of emotional disturbance. Postpartum depressive symptoms have been found to negatively affect the daily functioning of mothers and can adversely affect the development of infants. Consequently, there is a pressing need for an effective preventive strategy to reduce the risk of postpartum depression.

 

Laura Schulze

University of Toronto

“A Randomized Controlled Trial Comparing Two Different Patterns of Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation in the Treatment of Refractory Depression”

For a large portion of patients  experiencing depression, medications and therapy are not effective. New treatments are urgently needed. The proposed study will investigate the use of an emerging, non-invasive form of brain stimulation known as repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), to treat major depression. rTMS involves stimulating certain areas of the brain with powerful, focused magnetic field pulses that, over time, can gradually change the activity level of that area. Currently, the use of rTMS to treat major depression requires a 45-minute session, five days per week over a period of four to six weeks, for a total of 20 to 30 sessions. A newly developed pattern of rTMS, known as theta-burst stimulation (TBS), takes just three minutes, twice a day, in as few as five to ten days. This study will compare the two approaches. 

 

Victoria Marche

University of Toronto

“Using Computations Models to Predict Antidepressant Response in Older Adults with Depression”

Major depression affects almost two million Canadians annually. This research project will explore and develop a computational model that uses individual biological and clinical characteristics to predict response to commonly prescribed antidepressants. The project has four phases: an investigation into genome-wide associations; an analysis of microRNAs found circulating in blood; a cellular study to understand how microRNAs regulate genomes to alter the way our neurons produce proteins; and development of an integrated computational model that determines which patients respond to their antidepressants. The goal of this research is to treat depression through personalized, precision treatment.

Archived Research

Explore the range of impactful research we fund: from biomedical research on mental illness to developing national mental health indicators to analyzing treatment effectiveness. Our researchers pursue improved mental health outcomes through cutting-edge, visionary work.

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