Pandemic and wellness

Eve Pouliot
Université de Québec à Chicoutimi

Strategies to help teenagers exposed to natural disasters during the pandemic

Examining the mental health impacts of cumulative trauma

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended our world to the point that calling it a catastrophe is no understatement. And since misfortunes rarely come alone, there has not been a shortage of natural disasters during the pandemic either. Eve Pouliot, associate professor in the department of social sciences and humanities at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC), focuses her research on the impact of these events. She is interested in youth mental health in adverse situations. Up until now, very little research has looked at the consequences of traumatic events on the resilience of teenagers.

In collaboration with Danielle Maltais (UQAC) and Christine Gervais and Kristel Tardif-Grenier (Université du Québec en Outaouais), Eve Pouliot is leading a study in two Outaouais high schools to document the experiences of students who were exposed to multiple stressful events, including flooding and tornadoes, during the pandemic. “Teenagers have felt a great sense of isolation during the pandemic, with losing access to school, their usual meeting place,” she explains.

Some teenagers may have faced yet other difficult situations, like the death of someone close, a breakup or moving to a new place. A succession of challenging events can exacerbate a sense of vulnerability in teenagers and represent risk factors that may give rise to mental health issues.

Listening is key to better support for teenagers

Eve Pouliot and her team are working to document individual adaptation and resilience strategies to develop intervention tools to help teenagers, especially those who live in rural areas and have limited access to resources. These tools will be shared with school administrations.

Although teenagers are more susceptible to experiencing the negative effects of a natural disaster, psychosocial professionals rarely reach out to them and tend to work with their parents instead. These professionals often assume that after receiving assistance, parents will be able to support their children. But this is not always the case. As Eve Pouliot notes, “we have to let teenagers speak if we want to better understand their needs and support them in a way that is adapted to their reality.”

This is key to improving resilience and protective factors, not only for the youth of today, but also for the generations to come, especially given the increasing frequency of natural disasters resulting from climate change.

For more information, visit Eve Pouliot’s website (French only).

Heidi Tworek
University of British Columbia

Words matter in effective public health messaging

Learning from the communications tactics of past and current pandemics

How can effective public health communication mitigate the impacts of a pandemic? Heidi Tworek, Canada Research Chair in History and Policy of Health Communications at the University of British Columbia, is seeking to answer that question. Her work explores how governments and health authorities have communicated during the COVID-19 crisis, as well as in past pandemics, looking for the messages, practices and institutions that positively affect people’s behaviour.

“The words we use matter,” she says. “Whether we call a mask a protection or restriction fundamentally changes the way people think about the interventions we’re using to respond to the pandemic.”

Tworek works with epidemiologists, computer scientists, political scientists, historians and others to analyze how public health authorities communicate around the world—and has found many important lessons for Canada.

In Taiwan and South Korea, for example, authorities learned from their mistakes during the SARS and MERS pandemics to implement reforms that put communications at the heart of their pandemic responses. A heightened emphasis on public engagement during COVID-19 improved mask-wearing and also helped prevent the spread of dangerous rumours. New Zealand, meanwhile, learned that communications mattered during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic. With a century to hone its approach, the country was able to respond faster and more robustly when COVID-19 arrived.

Communication is a two-way street

Tworek is also researching how online abuse has affected the work of Canadian public health officials, doctors, nurses and others during the pandemic. She’s exploring how to counter this vitriol to avoid a “chilling effect” that makes experts reluctant to communicate with wider audiences.

Ultimately, Tworek hopes her research will push policy-makers and public health institutions to improve how they communicate—changing how Canada and the world respond to future pandemics for the better.

Visit Heidi Tworek’s website to learn more about her research.

Myles Leslie
University of Calgary

Turning COVID-19 into a catalyst for change

Action-oriented research addresses public health communications during the pandemic

Public health communication is critical during a pandemic, but it’s easy for messages to become distorted as they move across jurisdictions. Myles Leslie, Director of Research in the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, is exploring ways to overcome communication breakdowns so Canadians receive more integrated, consistent care.

When the World Health Organization issues guidance on infection prevention and control (IPC), the information is first interpreted at the federal and provincial levels before arriving at the local healthcare clinic that then must implement it. But what if that guidance isn't practical for a clinic manager or family doctor with limited resources?

To reconcile these errors and inconsistencies in the transmission of pandemic policy, and improve how IPC resources are shared, Leslie uses an approach called “alongsider” ethnography. Instead of being an invisible observer, he and his team work directly with practitioners and decision-makers in hospital wards, acute care sites and primary care practices to see what’s working and what isn’t—and then help them implement real change.

Research in action

Leslie calls this “action research” because he uses his findings to forge connections within and across healthcare organizations to break down silos and promote the uptake of IPC best practices. His team has also produced real-world tools doctors can use in their everyday work, such as a vaccine hesitancy guide. The result, he says, has been more integration across Alberta’s healthcare system—and a “disentangling” of the web of institutions and individuals responsible for providing care in the community.

“Everybody wants a better integrated primary care system,” he says. “While the pandemic has exacerbated existing problems, it’s also been a catalyst for change by putting people at tables that they wouldn’t have been at before.”

Visit Ward of the 21st Century to learn more about Myles Leslie’s research.

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