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Mobile lab gets moving on First Nations health

Mobile lab gets moving on First Nations health

CAMH researchers visit First Nations communities, focusing on issues of special relevance

RHOC researchers at the mobile lab in Aamjiwnaang First Nation. From left to right: Candida Wemigwans, Lynn Rosales, Animikeence Plain and Ada Lockridge.​
Since spring 2011, CAMH’s mobile research lab has visited six Ontario communities, enabling a unique series of community-based studies on mental health, substance use, violence and service use.
The lab – equipped with interview rooms and a wet lab to store biological samples – is the setting for an ambitious, five-year project called Researching Health in Ontario Communities (RHOC)​, led by CAMH Scientist Dr. Samantha Wells. The RHOC team aims to visit diverse communities across the province, settling in for a few months at each site, which enables them to easily interact with local community partners and collect data that is relevant to each community.
Focusing on First Nations issues
The lab’s two most recent stops were in Kettle and Stony Point First Nation and Aamjiwnaang First Nation, in the Sarnia area. Dr. Julie George, RHOC project coordinator and CAMH post-doctoral fellow, notes that some First Nation communities are disproportionately affected by mental health, substance use and violence issues.
“Our research is important because it centres around issues of special relevance to First Nations people, including historical trauma, unresolved grief, marginalization and racism,” says Dr. George, who is also First Nations. “However, we also focus on positive factors, such as resilience and resources within a community that support and strengthen its membership.”
In each community the lab visits, Drs. Wells and George collaborated closely with partners in Kettle and Stony Point and Aamjiwnaang First Nations to develop tailored research questions and determine how study data could be best collected. This collaboration will continue as study findings are interpreted and applied.
These First Nations communities are small – together they have just over 4,600 band members, with approximately 1,300 members living on the reserves. Yet the communities are well engaged, through active input from community partners and high participation in the research, with more than 600 participants in total.
“Our research assistants have extensive experience working with Aboriginal people, both in research and as community-based workers,” says Dr. George. “This way, our research benefits from a strong community perspective and staff gain strong research skills that can be applied in other settings.”
In addition to community-specific questions, researchers also have a questionnaire that asks all study participants standard questions about mood and anxiety, stress, violence, alcohol and other drug use, and service utilization. Biological samples of hair and saliva are also collected to study the stress hormone cortisol and genetic vulnerabilities to mental health and substance use problems. This information will be pooled across all sites that the RHOC team visits to develop scientific papers on social and biological factors related to mental health, substance use and violence.
Applying the findings
In addition to their scientific work, the RHOC team is committed to making sure local findings are put into practice to improve community services. For instance, after their stay in Welland and Port Colborne they prepared a report on local findings and held a public forum to engage community members.
In these communities, family support played a key role for people attempting to seek care. Two major barriers to accessing care were transportation and financial difficulties, as were long waitlists, lack of affordable counselling and stigma.
“We are not simply providing findings and leaving the community to figure out what to do,” says Dr. Wells. ‘We are committed to working with communities to ensure that the findings are useful to them.”
Next, the lab will be heading north, to Sudbury. Learn more on the RHOC website.
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