New funding targets stigma of aging and mental health

Thursday, June 9, 2022

A step toward “helping older adults stay active, connected, and safe,” the 2022 theme of Senior’s month in the Province of Ontario

A University of Waterloo researcher has received half a million dollars from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to provide needed support to older adults impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Since the pandemic began two years ago, there has been a growing concern for the health and wellbeing of older adults,” says Justine Giosa, Adjunct Professor in the School of Public Health Sciences at Waterloo and Managing Director of the SE Research Centre at SE Health. “Although the physical effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are a major focus, there are also rising concerns about the unmet mental health needs of aging Canadians.”

The funding for Professor Giosa and her pan-national team will be used to co-design mental health conversations between older adults and health and social care providers in community health settings across Canada. The funding comes in the form of an operating grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to address the wider health impact of COVID-19 and build health system reliance in preparation for future pandemics and emergencies.

“Aging Canadians experiencing mental health concerns often face ageism and mental health stigma in our society, creating huge barriers to accessing appropriate support, care and treatment,” says Professor Giosa. “Stimulating more conversations about mental health in community care settings is crucial to health system resiliency as we work to better meet people’s holistic health care needs.”

Professor Giosa’s project builds on some preliminary consultation work led by the SE Research Centre in collaboration with the Canadian Mental Health Association’s National Office during the pandemic.

“Older adults, caregivers and health and social care providers across Canada have identified that research should prioritize skill-building in mental health for community-based providers and the application of user-friendly tools to identify signs of positive and poor mental health,” says Professor Giosa.

With the new funding, Professor Giosa and her team are now able to act on these priorities. For example, the team has identified a mental health continuum model that they will leverage to guide mental health conversations between healthcare providers and older adults in the community. The research team will partner with ‘experts by lived experience’, using co-design methods to understand and respond to diverse needs in rural and urban communities across Ontario, British Columbia, and Nova Scotia.

Carrie McAiney, Associate Professor in the School of Public Health Sciences at Waterloo and Schlegel Research Chair in Dementia is a co-investigator on the study.

“There is a lot of concern about compounded health inequities during the pandemic, and the difference in accessibility of services between urban and rural settings is one factor we plan to intentionally explore and address through this multi-site, cross-province study,” says Professor McAiney.

The goal of the research is to enhance older adult help-seeking behaviours and support community providers to create more direct linkages to appropriate mental health support, care and treatment.

“The point is to leverage existing point of care interactions and therapeutic relationships in community settings to better integrate physical and mental health care, rather than building entirely new programs that could further silo the system. We feel this approach will help to build provider confidence, remove system access barriers and ultimately result in improved individual, collective and system-level resilience,” says Professor Giosa.