Mental health initiative focuses on improving treatment for trauma

Photo of Dr. Margaret McKinnon in blue blazer in in front of window

There is more awareness and less stigma now to mental health issues caused by trauma, but much more needs to be done to improve care and find cures, says a psychologist named the inaugural Homewood Chair in Mental Health and Trauma.

“There is tremendous room for advancement in the area of trauma,” says Margaret McKinnon. “For example, traumatic responses are often thought to be fear-based, such as the fear of being blown up after return from the combat theatre.  But responses to trauma are complex and also include such things as difficulty experiencing positive emotions or feeling numbed out or not present.

“We also need to understand better how emotional trauma has a physical impact on the brain.”

McKinnon’s new role, being announced at an event on April 16, marks the strategic partnering of four organizations dedicated to improving the lives of people suffering from trauma-related mental illness and addiction.

McMaster University, St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, Homewood Health and Homewood Research Institute have partnered to establish the position, as well as a network of researchers, evaluators and clinicians working to advance clinical practice and outcomes in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and related illnesses. The collaborative network will have its foundations in Ontario and will expand across Canada and beyond in a multi-year process.

McKinnon will play a key role in building the national network – known as the Homewood-McMaster Trauma Research Network – and will lead the development of a Trauma Research Program at Homewood Research Institute (HRI).

At HRI, McKinnon is guiding the development of a clinical research and knowledge translation program at Homewood. She is an associate professor of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences at McMaster University, and she serves as a psychologist and the academic head of the mood disorders program at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton.

As a PTSD researcher, McKinnon is well-known for authoring a novel study about PTSD vulnerability based on findings in a group of airline passengers – herself included – who experienced a traumatic event on Air Transat Flight 236 when their plane ran out of fuel over the Atlantic Ocean in 2001. The study revealed important risk factors that could predict PTSD vulnerability. McKinnon has since made significant contributions to the field of PTSD research involving military members, veterans and first responders.

This joint effort aims to merge existing expertise in applied clinical research with new treatment interventions, clinical innovation, research, evaluation and knowledge exchange to optimize care and outcomes for people experiencing PTSD.

“It is rare to find someone like Dr. McKinnon, who is so fully engaged in both the clinical and scientific realms,” says Ron Schlegel, chair of the Homewood Research Institute.

“Dr. McKinnon is uniquely equipped for this role and will be leading the development of a national research enterprise that none of our organizations could build alone.”

Paul O’Byrne, dean and vice-president of the Faculty of Health Sciences at McMaster, adds: “This is an initiative that will involve Dr. McKinnon, a leader in trauma-based mental health, and use the assets of all four institutions to advance this important area of care along faster than any of us could do alone. This is an important national development.”

“This important collaboration brings together the unique strengths of academic health science partners across clinical settings to better understand and translate novel interventions into practice for those who are suffering,” says Kevin Smith, CEO of the St. Joseph’s Health System.

“Together we will grow and strengthen research into mental health and addictions – regionally, nationally and internationally.”

Jagoda Pike, president and CEO of Homewood Health, says: “Under Dr. McKinnon’s leadership, the national Trauma Research Network represents the future of PTSD research and treatment in Canada. Our patients and clients will benefit tremendously from the work of this new network.”

A ceremony to honour McKinnon’s appointment to the Homewood Chair in Mental Health and Trauma is set for 4:30 p.m. on Monday, April 16 at McMaster’s David Braley Health Sciences Centre, 100 Main Street West, Hamilton.