New Chair in women’s mental health established at York

Mental health and well-being in low income, immigrant and refugee women, teenage girls, young women and female nurses will be among the areas of focus of an innovative Chair in Women’s Mental Health Research at York University.

Gender differences in depression illustrate why more research into women’s mental health is urgently needed. In Ontario, depression is twice as common in women (six per cent) as it is in the male population (three per cent). While hormones and biology may explain some of the difference in rates between the genders, there is increasing evidence that the social conditions of women’s lives may also be putting them at increased risk for depression – especially in certain groups.

The Ontario Women’s Health Council announced on Thursday, March 8, a $1-million commitment to establish the endowed Chair at York University, a commitment that will be matched by the University. “This Chair in Women’s Mental Health Research will be a legacy of council that will support the integration of research and training at York University and act as a catalyst for improvements in women’s health for years to come," said Jane Pepino, Chair of the Ontario Women’s Health Council. "I am pleased that we are partnering with York to ensure that its new Faculty of Health has a strong women’s health focus.”

"We’re addressing an area that’s been really under-researched. We need to learn more about the social, economic and cultural determinants of mental health in women," said Harvey Skinner (right), dean of the Faculty of Health at York University. "To do that, we will be working with policymakers and with women who use mental health services in York Region and the surrounding community, to determine whether the services that are available are appropriate for the people who need them."

The research Chair will start on July 1, 2008, in the Faculty of Health. The Faculty was established last summer to bring together four schools at York: Health Policy & Management, Kinesiology & Health Science, Nursing, and Psychology. Researchers in the Faculty are already undertaking a wide range of interdisciplinary work on women’s health issues.

Creating an endowed Chair in women’s mental health will focus attention in the next few years on finding practical interventions in four groups at higher risk, said Skinner: immigrant and refugee women and their families; women in low income neighbourhoods such as Jane-Finch, and rural areas of York Region; female adolescents (often undiagnosed) and young women; as well as women in the nursing profession.

The mental health of the nursing workforce in Canada is a particularly urgent women’s health issue; a 2005 survey showed that nearly 31 per cent of the 315,000 nurses in Canada had high job strain. They reported physical assaults and emotional abuse by patients and pain serious enough to prevent them from carrying out their normal activities.

Left: The mental health of the nursing workforce is among the areas of focus for the new Chair in women’s mental health

"We have almost 1,000 nursing students at York," said Skinner. "What we do in prevention – in training our nursing students to be able to deal with the stresses in the workplace – can have an enormous impact."

In York Region, where more than 40 per cent of the population is immigrant, understanding immigrant women’s mental health is critical. Research has shown that immigrants and refugees experience higher levels of psychological distress and problems. The risks may be magnified for immigrant and refugee women who, for example, are less likely than immigrant and refugee men to speak English, are often more socially isolated and, in addition, are more burdened than other women with due to unpaid care of ill or disabled relatives.

Research suggests that standard North American mental health services may not meet the needs of these minority clients, said Skinner. "By taking research out of the laboratory and into the culturally diverse natural laboratory of York Region, our new Chair in Women’s Mental Health Research will be able to design mental health programs that are based on and tailored to actual needs in the community."

Some of the innovative health research currently underway at York University includes:

A study of the unique developmental pathways of babies in families that have put down roots in Canada but remain very closely tied to their home countries is being undertaken by Professor Yvonne Bohr, Department of Psychology. Bohr is currently studying new immigrant mothers of infants in the Chinese-Canadian community who have considered sending their children back to China for several years.

Professor Caroline Davis, School of Kinesiology & Health Sciences, is investigating the role of brain reward mechanisms in addictive behaviours, with a special emphasis on how reward sensitivity influences compulsive overeating and binge eating – problems which affect many women in today’s society. These factors are particularly relevant to the growing problem of obesity and the related negative health consequences associated with this condition.

A study into the effectiveness of treatments for anxiety by Henny Westra, professor of psychology, uses an innovative combination of motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioural therapy interventions. Anxiety disorders affect women about twice as often as men. Westra and her students are going to provide evidence-based assessment and treatment for anxiety to women in areas surrounding York University.

Professor Tamara Daly of the School of Health Policy & Management is a co-principal investigator on a study of the experiences of Toronto women living with HIV. The study focuses on the women’s mental and emotional health needs, as well as formal and informal health and social supports.

Nursing Professor Lillie Lum is studying how highly-skilled international health professionals, many who are members of female dominated professions, can gain more equitable access to the Canadian labour market by gaining a better understanding of the learning needs for health professionals, of the ability of the postsecondary educational system to provide quality education and of policy implications.

For more information, visit York’s Faculty of Health Web site.