June 15, 2021

Alberta’s first pan-provincial nursing research chair announces renewed funding and expansion

The Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation (the Foundation) and UCalgary Nursing renew joint funding behind Alberta’s first pan-provincial nursing research chair, held by associate professor Dr. Dawn Kingston
Dr. Dawn Kingston
Dr. Dawn Kingston Photo by Joel Kingston

In September of 2016, an historic partnership was formed. The Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation (the Foundation) and UCalgary Nursing came together to jointly fund Alberta’s first pan-provincial nursing research chair, held by Dr. Dawn Kingston (RN, PhD), who has been working in the perinatal mental health area for more than 15 years.

Named the Lois Hole Hospital for Women Cross-Provincial Chair in Perinatal Mental Health, the program was one of the first of its kind, facilitating dedicated research into the mental health of pregnant and postpartum women and resulting in crucial advancements in clinical care.

Now, the two have announced they have again partnered to renew and expand the agreement. Known as the Lois Hole Hospital for Women Cross-Provincial Chair in Women’s Mental Health Research, the updated name reflects the transition from addressing mental health surrounding pregnancy to supporting women across the entire life span. And it ties into the Foundation’s new health-care charity, the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation (AWHF), launched earlier in 2021. The AWHF’s goal is to take a province-wide approach to raising funds specifically for women’s health and women’s health research and address historic gaps in women’s health.

As Canada’s only endowed research chair in the area of perinatal mental health, one of the first notable successes has been the creation of the HOPE (Healthy Outcomes for Pregnancy & Postpartum Experiences) Digital Mental Health Platform (or HOPE App). Kingston’s team discovered that three out of four women want to self-manage their mental health (so much so that 70% of women don’t raise their mental health concerns with their doctor), and that 80 per cent of women will continue to have mental health problems into the postpartum period, and beyond, if left untreated.

Aleisha Arsenault

Aleisha Arsenault with her son

Courtesy of Aleisha Arsenault

The HOPE App has been profound for young mother Aliesha Arsenault, who used it to help her through a difficult time.

Arsenault had her son in Red Deer in September of 2019. As someone who had anxiety for most of her life and struggled with hormones and additional pressure throughout her pregnancy, as a new mother, she was feeling tired all the time. “Some days I’d just lay on the floor for a few hours, thinking  ‘I’ll feel better soon, then I’ll get up, fix everything, clean the house, feed the kids.’”

She started using the app on a monthly basis. “It was like a checklist to go over and see how I was doing and it was really nice.”

She began to look forward to the app’s surveys, but in December 2019, for the first time, her symptom status began showing as “high,” instead of her usual “mild” or “moderate.” A button to ‘share with your health-care provider’ popped up. “That big green button was calling out to me,” she remembers and she clicked it. Three weeks later, she received a text from the program’s lead coach: they set up a call and from there, Arsenault dove more fully into the platform.

“It honestly changed everything,” she says. “I started journaling again, exercising, eating better, and I started joining Mommy & Me groups. I wasn’t hiding anymore. I started enjoying spending time with other people again, and feeling a lot more like myself.”

Arsenault is not alone. She is one of 3,500 women who have already benefited from the HOPE platform.

Renewal of second term goal aims to take the platform national

The objectives of the first term were focused on building the foundation of a much larger movement. This required generating crucial evidence and conducting research around perinatal mental health, such as the impact of early detection and treatment on mother and child outcomes, and to establish a base of evidence as well as the effectiveness of the HOPE platform.

The renewal of the research chair provides the opportunity to build upon those objectives and take them much further toward the ultimate goal—to be able to provide accessible, affordable mental health care for all.

“We look forward to this next five years of partnership and continued success in the advancement of research and interventions in women’s health that are accessible, innovative and life-changing to all women,” says Sharlene Rutherford, president and CEO of the Foundation and AWHF.

UCalgary Nursing dean Dr. Sandra Davidson (PhD) agrees. “I have every confidence that the renewal of the chair will have a substantial and positive impact on the Foundation's program of research.”

The bottom line is all about overcoming barriers to mental health care,” says Kingston, adding there’s no reason the next iteration of the HOPE project can’t go national. “No country anywhere in the world has been able to offer accessible, affordable mental health care for all, and it has always been an ambition of ours to do that.

“We cannot offer the kind of mental health care we need by relying on human resources alone,” she continues, although an upcoming goal is to increase the number of coaches. The platform shoulders as much of the administrative work as possible, freeing up mental health professionals for the more important type of work that only a human can perform. “What we see is women like to do the courses currently provided through the platform independently, but guided by the coach. That’s the key, that there is a human element to it as well.”

“It’s really heartwarming to know women are talking about these issues, research is happening, and things will get better for people,” says Arsenault.

The chair is also supported by the Women and Children's Health Research Institute, a partnership with the University of Alberta and Alberta Health Services, with core funding from the Stollery Children's Hospital Foundation and the Alberta Women's Health Foundation.

To read the original full-length story from The Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation, click this link.