Culture & Gender

Why culture and gender mental health research matters. 

The way that we experience culture, gender and other social determinants of health can be sources of both vulnerability and resilience. 

This is particularly true for culturally marginalized groups within Canada, such as First Nations peoples, who often face unique and disproportionate challenges when it comes to mental health. 

Through research, it has become increasingly apparent that long-explored questions in science related to “nature versus nurture” and “genes versus environment” are not either/or: Rather, researchers are now beginning to understand how biology can be altered by experiences, and culture has a role in how it plays out. 

Recent studies have shown that people can have biological responses to discrimination – and there is even evidence that life experiences going back before birth can turn genes on or off; affecting reactions to later challenges in life and mental health outcomes. 

The children and grandchildren of Residential School Survivors, for instance, show higher rates of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. This suggests that the effects of significant stress and trauma can be transmitted across generations.  At the same time, intergenerational experiences can foster resilience among offspring as they learn to draw on collective strengths and build a determination to overcome the obstacles that they face. 

Exploring the role that culture plays in mental health and resilience is critical in order to develop and personalize mental health treatments and strategies that can help prevent or alleviate suffering, reduce health inequities and improve outcomes for marginalized groups.  

“We don’t help anyone by going into a community and assuming we know what’s best. [Our] work is a chance to build new bridges, to listen and learn how we can actually help, and to harness community strengths and collective action to make change for disadvantaged groups.” - Dr. Kim Matheson

What we do.

Work conducted through the IMHR’s Culture and Gender Mental Health Research Unit addresses some of the social determinants of health, with a particular focus on marginalized populations.  

In 2017, the IMHR and Carleton University announced a new partnership, the Culture and Gender Mental Health Research Chair, held by Dr. Kim Matheson. 

As Chair, Dr. Matheson’s primary research involves working with First Nations communities in Northwestern Ontario to identify and implement community-led strategies to promote youth mental health, and serve a preventative role to diminish self-harm, substance use and deaths by suicide. 

In 2018, Dr. Robyn McQuaid joined the unit as a scientist and Emerging Research Innovator in Mental Health (eRIMh). Her research examines the impacts of stress and trauma on mental health with a specific focus on culture and gender.

Through dedicated research; collaborations with Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations and researchers; and partnerships with First Nations communities, Dr. Matheson and Dr. McQuaid are contributing to the co-creation of new evidence and possibilities to promote mental health issues facing underserved communities, and effectively transform lives. 

Research Focus:

  • Co-creating intervention approaches to wellness tailored to the unique experiences of First Nations peoples;
  • Identifying risk and resilience factors influencing mental health and wellness among First Nations youth;
  • Examining gender differences in the link between cannabis use and mental health symptoms among first year university students;
  • Characterizing distinct biotypes of peripheral stress and inflammatory markers that correlate with symptoms of depression, anxiety and suicidal behaviors, and how this differs according to gender; 
  • Understanding potential brain differences in males versus females, to develop greater insight into mental disorders with a sex/gender bias
Dr. Robyn McQuaid