First aid with mental health at its heart

A photo of Melissa Kimber, Haruka Kanai and Louise Murray-Leung at the Lynwood Charlton Centre in Hamilton. The three women are standing apart from one another and smiling at the camera.

Melissa Kimber, Haruka Kanai and Louise Murray-Leung at the Lynwood Charlton Centre

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the lives of millions around the world, including the mental health professionals trying to help patients through this uncertain time.

A group of McMaster researchers are working to give these professionals the tools they need to help support their patients through the specific circumstances the global pandemic has created with a psychological first aid (PFA) program named ‘LIVES for Families.’

With funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Melissa Kimber, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster, co-led the project with McMaster colleagues and child psychiatrists and associate professors Noam Soreni and Sheila Harms.

LIVES for Families is an adapted version of the LIVES PFA program originally developed by the World Health Organization. The original focus of that program was to support women who have experienced intimate partner and sexual violence. It has since been used to address the mental health impact of natural disasters and major events.

The team chose to adapt the LIVES model to the COVID-19 context because it is brief and can be easily integrated into the ongoing work, skills and knowledge of front-line health and mental health professionals.

“LIVES for Families is designed to provide brief, focused, emotional and practical support to children, youth, adults and families during large-scale crises,” said Kimber.

Kimber and her research team collaborated with staff at the Lynwood Charlton Centre, Hamilton’s lead agency for mental health services provided to children, youth, and their families.

The Centre’s family engagement lead Louise Murray-Leung gathered input from families with experience accessing child and youth mental health services, while a youth social worker at the Centre, Haruka Kanai, engaged a team of young people with lived experience of mental health concerns, who helped identify sources of stress for themselves and their peers and shape the training materials, so they addressed concerns relevant to young people and their families.

“Our roles meant we already had a good relationship with our youth and family engagement team members, which made it easier to involve them in the project and to help the researchers access their expertise,” said Murray-Leung. “The team was highly committed to the project even though they were themselves being stretched by the demands of the pandemic.”

The LIVES for Families program educates people on the possible mental impacts of COVID-19 and pandemic restrictions. It affirms that the stress and distress that children, youth, and families are experiencing makes sense and acknowledges that the evidence about impacts and how to address them is evolving. Finally, it provides concrete strategies for providing emotional and practical support for those experiencing pandemic-related stress.

The training was delivered to 59 mental health professionals, including youth pastors, clinical psychologists, social workers, child and youth workers, and physicians, who work in southern Ontario. The participants received three virtual training sessions spaced two weeks apart.

In the first session, they learned the core elements of the program. In the next two sessions, they practiced the elements of the program using various scenarios and teaching tools to build their competence and confidence to use the program with the families they work with.

Although focused on mental health professionals, the youth and family team saw the potential for making the training program available to other frontline workers, including family physicians, nurses, clergy, teachers, guidance counsellors, peer support counsellors, and community service providers, and members of the community who interact with youth and families in any area of their daily life, such as food banks, community centres, and neighbourhood associations.

Follow-up surveys with participants showed positive changes in their ability to recognize and respond to COVID-related stressors in their clients.

Participants were also asked about their own experiences of stress. Preliminary analyses from the research team indicated that participants were experiencing high levels of worry, as well as some burnout, and secondary traumatic stress.

“We want to highlight that while, in some cases, these professionals may have been emotionally exhausted and struggling, they were still committed to learning what they can and doing what they can to support the well-being of their clients,” said Kimber.

Given the positive results, Kimber and her colleagues have since received funding from the Joseph Brant Hospital Mental Health Research Program to implement the program with mental health and non-mental health clinicians in the Halton and Hamilton regions.

The next step will be to conduct a clinical trial on the program to determine whether the positive results for mental health professionals can be repeated, and whether it leads to positive impacts for their clients.

This evidence will hopefully support the widespread use of ‘LIVES for Families’ and provide mental health professional with a reliable program that will not only help their clients cope with the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also ready them for the possibility of other pandemics in the future.

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