Empowering Acadia students - research on rural mental health care

A recent report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) features the research of Acadia University graduate Robin Lauzon, whose thesis delves into the unique challenges and needs of rural communities when using virtual mental health programs. 

As an independent, non-partisan research institute, the CCPA brings forward research that addresses issues of social, economic, and environmental justice. The report on the CCPA website includes a summary of Lauzon’s thesis, called A Critical Assessment of Virtual Mental Health Care for Rural Nova Scotians. 

"I am very grateful to have my research presented by the CCPA in Nova Scotia," said Lauzon. "As a recent graduate, this experience has been a great way to gain practical experience in research and policy analysis. I am excited to see how this work can be used to inform policy decisions and improve the mental health of rural communities across Canada." 

She added that CCPA NS had been generous with their time, feedback, and support, and provided her with “a wonderful platform to amplify rural Nova Scotians’ concerns.” 

Supporting relevant research 

"Acadia University provides an environment that encourages students to explore real-world issues and make meaningful contributions to their respective fields," said Dr. David Duke, Dean of Arts at Acadia University. "Community engagement is key to a great deal of our work and Robin’s research is a marvellous example of that – working to identify and explore a social issue, and on the basis of that research, to make recommendations for its solution. It shows how much students can contribute to their communities whilst engaging in their studies." 

A Kentville, Nova Scotia resident, Lauzon graduated with an honours degree in Politics in 2023.  

“I chose Acadia because of its strong Faculty of Arts, especially the Politics program,” said Lauzon, adding that the Politics Department has been incredibly supportive and kind to her throughout her studies. Her research was financially supported by a Scotia Scholars Award from Research Nova Scotia and an Acadia Honours Summer Research Award. 

Guided by her thesis advisor, Dr. Rachel Brickner, Lauzon focused her academic research on understanding Nova Scotia's new virtual care policies and their impact on mental health care in rural areas. Based on extensive interviews with 16 mental health care clinicians, her thesis highlights the need for policies and programs sensitive to rural communities' distinct challenges.  

“At Acadia, we know that undergraduate students can produce important research. Robin conceived of her thesis topic during her third-year research methods course, and it was a delight to work with her as she developed and implemented this ambitious and policy-relevant project,” said Brickner.  

Unique challenges in rural settings 

Lauzon's analysis reveals that while virtual care was accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic to address the population's immediate needs, it failed to adequately accommodate the unique barriers rural Nova Scotians face. The transition from in-person to virtual care posed challenges for practitioners and patients. 

"A lot of virtual care is very general, created for a wide variety of audiences, which during the pandemic was necessary," explained Lauzon. "However, it is now crucial to develop policies that address the distinct barriers and needs of different communities, particularly those in rural areas." 

One of Lauzon's key findings is the internet access issue in rural communities. Many individuals faced unreliable or expensive internet service, hindering their access to virtual care. Additionally, for those already experiencing isolation, she explains that virtual care may not provide the same level of connection as in-person appointments. 

Lauzon emphasized the importance of collaboration between the government, rural practitioners, and rural communities to develop policies and stable funding sensitive to their unique challenges. She also highlighted the need for government to support new and ongoing initiatives led by practitioners and non-governmental organizations to create care alternatives within rural communities. 

Driven by her own experiences and what was happening in society during her studies, the analysis conducted by Lauzon underscores the urgency of improving mental health care services in Nova Scotia.  

According to a report completed for the Nova Scotia Health Authority six years ago, Nova Scotians have one of the highest lifetime prevalence rates of mental health disorders in Canada. Lauzon's research highlights the need for policies and programs that address these challenges, particularly in rural areas. 

Lauzon plans to attend law school in the fall of 2024.  

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