Professor and Canada Research Chair, and executive director of BC Mental Health and Substance Use services Research Institute, UBC Departments of Psychiatry and Medical Genetics
What GE3LS issue does your research attempt to address?
My team is interested in how to take what we know about the genetics of psychiatric disorders and make it meaningful and useful to people who live with these conditions.
People who live with psychiatric disorders and their families often don’t get really good, personalized, comprehensible explanations about why they developed the condition that they have, and so they develop their own explanations for why they have a psychiatric disorder. Often, those explanations leave them feeling afraid, guilty, ashamed, stigmatized, or hopeless.
We study how psychiatric genetic counseling might help address these issues. Genetic counseling helps people understand what we know from research about the factors that contribute to the development of the condition they have in a highly personalized way that focuses on addressing emotions. When people are interested, we can also talk about the chances for others in the family to experience similar conditions.
A really important part of genetic counseling is using our understanding of cause of illness as a framework for understanding ways to better protect mental health for the future. We have shown that psychiatric genetic counseling leads to large increases in empowerment, and can help people change their behaviour to protect their mental health. We continue to investigate how to improve the process and outcomes of genetic counseling for people who live with psychiatric disorders and their families.
What drew you to this area of research?
It was my own personal and family history of psychiatric disorders that drew me to this area of work. I was doing my PhD in neuropsychiatric genetics – looking for variations that make people more vulnerable to developing psychiatric disorders – when I realized that there was a huge need among families like mine to understand how and if genetics is relevant to psychiatric disorders. I could see that people with psychiatric disorders and their families were reluctant to ask questions about the causes of psychiatric illness because they were afraid of the answers. But the questions they didn’t want to ask were really important, and influenced all sorts of behaviours and life decisions. I could see that the real answers to the questions were actually a lot less scary than the answers people imagined and were afraid of getting, so I really wanted to see if psychiatric genetic counselling could help.
What benefits does the kind of work you do bring to genomics research?
It is absolutely critical. For all the molecular genetics work that’s happening to make a difference in the real world of clinical practice, we need to know how best to apply it, and how to use it in such a way that patients benefit. With genetics, we have tended to think that all we need to do is make sure people have access to information, and the manner in which that information is delivered matters a lot less. Our work is showing that actually, the manner in which the information is delivered is critical to achieving the outcomes that we seek to achieve for our patients.
As someone living and working in British Columbia, what is your favourite thing to do or place to go?
I enjoy food. I like cooking at home, and eating out…I have a whole bunch of favourite places to eat in Vancouver! I am one of those strange people that likes the rain (so Vancouver is a great place for me to be), I like being outside when its raining because it seems to drive most of the crowds indoors, its peaceful.
What’s on the top of your ‘Bucket List’ right now?
I’ve not yet been to Japan. So that’s a place I’d like to go. Also, I’ve not yet managed to see a moose or a porcupine in the wild despite being in Canada for 18 years, so those are things that are definitely on the list too.
About Genomics and Society
Genome BC has taken a leadership role in exploring the societal aspects of genomics research. One way we do this is through supporting genomics-related social science and humanities research. This area of research doesn’t just focus on genomic impacts on society once the scientific research is complete . Through collaboration, it also aims to inform on the societal dimension of scientific research questions, research design and funding allocation. This can help genomics research produce social benefits and achieve public value. In the context of Canada’s Genomics Enterprise, this research is referred to as ‘GE3Ls – Genomics and its Environmental, Economic, Ethical, Legal and Social aspects and is distinct from the anticipated socio-economic benefits of the project itself. Learn more about Genomics and Society here.