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Research director receives prestigious award for genetic counselling work

Genetics have a profound effect on mental health. But for those who might benefit most, the science can be hard to understand and apply.
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In early June, Dr. Jehannine Austin, the executive director of BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services’ Research Institute, received the 2019 Dr. Samarthji Lal Award for Mental Health Research for her work in genetic counselling. The annual award recognizes a researcher working in a Canadian institution in the area of mental health, specifically with a focus on major mental disorders.

"It's an enormous honour," Dr. Austin said. "It's such gratifying recognition of the genetic counselling work we've been doing here at the research institute. It brings attention to something that lots of people still don't know about, and yet we have evidence about how much it can really help people. For that reason, it's exciting. I think it raises the profile of psychiatric genetic counselling and the benefits it can have for patients."

Established by the Graham Boeckh Foundation, a private foundation that funds mental health initiatives, the award is named after Dr. Samarthji Lal, an eminent psychiatrist and researcher. An expert review panel composed of scientists from around the world and a representative of the foundation select the award recipient each year. The panel looks for innovative, out-of-the-box thinking in the area of mental health research.

Research leader, founder of the world's first psychiatric genetic counselling clinic

Dr. Austin more than fits the bill. In her leadership role at BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services' Research Institute, she helps mental health and substance use professionals across B.C. and the country use research to transform care for people living with mental health and substance use challenges. She and her team prioritize not just research findings, but also knowledge exchange, ensuring that clinicians and patients across the province and elsewhere can benefit from their findings.

Dr. Austin is also the founder of PHSA's Adapt Clinic, the world's first psychiatric genetic counselling clinic.

"Genetic counselling is a specialist service," she said. "People from around the world use me and my team as resources in terms of helping people who have these conditions. We consult with health care professionals in that capacity."

Understanding the biological factors behind mental health issues can be a game-changer for some mental health patients. She tells the story of one patient, whom she calls "Bob," and how it completely changed his outlook.


Patient 'dissolves into tears' after learning his illness 'wasn't all his fault'

"Bob" was receiving genetic counselling as part of a research study. He had been hospitalized following a suicide attempt and wasn't taking his medication. He had a graduate degree in psychiatric genetics, so when Dr. Austin asked him what he understood to be the cause of his illness, she expected his answer to relate to genetics.

Instead, Bob told her that he thought that his own "bad life decisions" were responsible. He felt genetics were relevant to other people—just not to him.

Dr. Austin drew Bob a picture of his family history using information he had provided—part of the counselling process—and used it and a visual analogy her team developed to show how genes and environment both contribute to the development of a psychiatric illness.

"He dissolved into tears," she said. "He started talking about how he could see—for the first time—that perhaps it wasn't all his fault. That was profound for him."

When her team followed up with Bob a month later, he was back on his medication. "He told us that once he understood there was a biological contribution to his own illness specifically, a biological treatment started making sense."

Since Dr. Austin founded the Adapt Clinic in 2012, she and her team have helped more than 1,100 people. Several other countries, including the U.S., U.K., Germany, Australia and Romania, have modelled their programs after the clinic. But it remains the only one of its kind in Canada.

Perhaps, she says, the Dr. Samarthji Lal Award will help change that.

"Hopefully this award will bring some attention to the clinic and our research, and it can be used as a model for other provinces to make sure we're serving our population of people who live with psychiatric disorders and their families more effectively."

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