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Research leader helping transform mental health and substance use care across B.C.

Dr. Jehannine Austin is a research scientist—but her days involve so much more than lab work and reports.
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​Through her leadership of the BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services Research Institute, she and her team help mental health and substance use professionals across British Columbia and the country transform care for people living with mental health and substance use challenges.

The Adapt Clinic: Genetic counselling

Dr. Austin specializes in genetic counselling research, which helps people make personal meaning out of scientific knowledge about how mental illness and substance use arises.

"Fundamentally, psychiatric genetic counselling helps people better understand what we know from research about the causes of psychiatric disorders, and how genes and environmental factors can work together to contribute to the development of these conditions," says Dr. Austin.

"It's about providing support and counselling to address any fear, guilt, shame or stigma they might feel. In addition, we also talk to people about strategies they can use to protect their mental health going forward."

Dr. Austin's research led her to found the Adapt Clinic, the world's first specialized genetic counselling clinic. Begun in 2012 and funded by the Provincial Health Services Authority, the clinic has helped over 1,100 people. Several other countries, including the U.S., U.K., Germany, Australia and Romania, have modelled their programs after the clinic. It remains the only program of its kind in Canada.

Victoria Maxwell, a mental health advocate, speaker, and former patient at Dr. Austin's clinic, speaks highly about her psychiatric genetic counselling experience.

"The sessions helped me make clear sense of my mental illnesses and gave meaning to the struggles I've had. Jehannine helped me see how my family history contributed to the onset of my illnesses, and how I still can take control of my recovery. I feel a huge sense of relief, less alone and incredibly empowered."

Dr. Austin also the Canada Research Chair in Translational Psychiatric Genomics, a professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Medical Genetics at the University of British Columbia, a graduate advisor in UBC's Genetic Counselling Training Program.

Her PhD research focused on trying to identify the genetic variations that make people more vulnerable to developing conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Dr. Austin, who has a family history of mental illness, found she didn't have the language to explain her PhD studies to her family in a way that meant something to them. This personal experience sparked her interest in psychiatric genetic counselling and drew her to the highly-regarded genetic counselling training program at UBC.

"I knew it wasn't just my family that was interested in understanding what a mental illness diagnosis meant for their lives. There are many other families, just like them, who need the same thing. I thought genetic counselling would provide me with the communication capabilities to take those really complex ideas and make them useful to people who live with these conditions," says Dr. Austin.

BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services Research Institute

The work Dr. Austin leads at the research institute, which has 15 principal investigators and dozens of students, goes far beyond genetic counselling, focusing on many different facets of mental health and substance use. One of her recently published studies looked at placenta eating—a trend popularized by celebrities—and found there were no mental health benefits.

Other studies from the institute are focusing on mental health and the law, mental health and substance use disorders among incarcerated people, the interaction of mental illness and substance use, and more. Dr. Austin's team prioritizes not just the research findings, but also knowledge exchange, ensuring that clinicians and patients across the province can benefit from the findings.

She loves the fact her work is having an impact on many levels.

"Individuals who participate in our studies often benefit directly from them, so we make a difference to an individual person. At the same time, I collect data from these study participants that allows me to produce results I can articulate for other people and can make a broader difference beyond the one individual participant."

 
 
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