This article, published in the Fall 2020 edition of The Beacon, was written by StFXAUT Communications Officer Philip Girvan.
Dr. Katie Aubrecht is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at StFX University, the Canada Research Chair in Health Equity & Social Justice, and the Director of the Spatializing Care: Intersectional Disability Studies Research Lab. As noted on Aubrecht’s website, “her research program analyzes marginality and mental health, rurality and resilience across the life span as health equity and social justice issues”.
Results from national COVID-19 mental health polls identify the existence and persistence of high levels of self-reported distress. According to one poll, Nova Scotians report Canada’s highest levels of anxiety and depression arising from the pandemic and resultant lockdowns.
An echo pandemic of mental health
Aubrecht describes an ‘echo pandemic of mental health’ happening in tandem with the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes the long-term mental health effects of COVID-19 related changes to the economy, access to resources, and social life. Aubrecht suggests that the pandemic has overturned social norms and this has challenged our ability to meaningfully engage with those around us in previously expected ways. In addition to contributing to distress this disruption can also shine a light on inequities that make certain people and groups more vulnerable to the coronavirus disease and its social consequences. Alongside appeals for a ‘return to normal’ or discovery of the ‘new normal’ there has also been, in Aubrecht’s words, a ‘seismic shift’ in terms of collective recognition of all the labour involved in constructing and maintaining ‘normal’, the reality of structural disadvantage, and the possibility that things could be different than they are.
In addition to exposing the fragility of normal, the pandemic has created research opportunities. COVID-19 Rapid Research Funding made available through Nova Scotia COVID-19 Health Research Coalition is supporting a project led by Aubrecht titled “Evidence to assess the impact of COVID-19 on community-based dementia care in Nova Scotia”. According to the Research Nova Scotia website, “[t]he study will contribute to, clarify, and enhance the best evidence-in-the-moment about programs and supports for vulnerable older adults living with dementia and their caregivers in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic”.
Researchers from across Nova Scotia, Manitoba, and international collaborators from the UK and Ireland are currently in month six of a ten-month grant, and their work has made it clear that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected those living with dementia and their friends, family, and caregivers. Using a Sex and Gender Based Analysis Plus analytical approach, the team has identified gaps and inequities. One such gap is the lack of accessible information about existing resources that support dementia care in the community for Disability, Black/African Nova Scotian, and 2SLGBTQQIA communities. Mapping supports and highlighting those currently available is one of the project’s significant achievements. The map, which will operate in real time, will soon be online.
Another inequity is the digital divide operating in Nova Scotia. The shift to online platforms and telehealth means that a significant number of people in the province lack the access to health services that others take for granted. The pandemic has made stark how devastating this divide has been.
Aubrecht is also a research stream co-lead on a cross-provincial program examining what adds quality to late life, death, work, and care within long-term care (LTC) titled “Seniors-Adding Life to Years”. This is a significant field of study as residents living in Canadian long-term care homes make up more than half of the COVID-19 deaths in Canada. This is the highest percentage in the world. Field research in eight promising LTC homes, two in each of four provinces, was completed just months before the shut-down. Even within model facilities, workers highlighted many problems that became apparent during the pandemic.
A ‘seismic shift’ in terms of collective recognition of all the labour involved in constructing and maintaining ‘normal’.
Another project that has taken on new significance is a multi-disciplinary investigation into knowledge, experiences, and perceptions of accessibility in the four Maple League Universities. Through a scoping review of publications on accessibility in Canadian Universities, a multi-level regional accessibility policy scan, and surveys and interviews, Aubrecht, project co-lead Dr. Erin Austen, and a team of co-investigators from StFX, Acadia, Mount Allison,and Bishop’s Universities are gaining an understanding of the state of accessibility at the four post-secondary institutions, and the potential impacts of changes brought on as a result of new COVID-19 protocols.
In addition to influencing her research, the emergence of COVID-19 has had a personal impact. With everything shifting to the home, boundaries between the personal and the professional didn’t just blur: they were erased. Like so many people working in the University, Aubrecht spent the spring juggling professional obligations and family care, including supporting her 7-year-old son complete grade 1 from home using an online learning platform.
Still, Aubrecht admits feeling fortunate to have work that she could perform from home. She frequently used the word “pivot” to describe the impact that the pandemic has had on her research and personal obligations. Her previous online teaching experience and support from colleagues and the Remote Teaching and Learning (Online) Preparedness Task Force facilitated the transition from in-person teaching to virtual, and the suddenness and uncertainty surrounding the March shutdown gave her new perspective on the role of community in supporting survival, resilience, and growth.
● Mental Health Research Canada. “Mental Health During COVID-19 Outbreak Poll 2”. September 2020. https://researchns.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/MHRC-Poll-2-MH-Final-Public-Release-Oct-1-2020-1.pdf last accessed December 8, 2020.
● Research Nova Scotia. “Results: Nova Scotia COVID-19 Health Research Coalition”. 2020. https://researchns.ca/covid19-health-research-coalition/ last accessed December 8, 2020.
● “Long-term care work is essential but essentially under-recognized” by Tamara Daly, Ivy Lynn Bourgeault, Katie Aubrecht. Originally published on Policy Options May 14, 2020. https://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/may-2020/long-term-care-work-is-essential-but-essentially-under-recognized/ last accessed December 8, 2020.