Dr. Srividya Iyer wins the ninth annual Royal-Mach-Gaensslen Prize

Dr. Iyer holds her Royal-Mach-Gaensslen Prize after the prize ceremony 5 December 2023 at the University of Ottawa Institute of Mental Health Research at the Royal. Left to right: Mach-Gaensslen Foundation chair Christopher Carruthers, Dr. Iyer, moderator Ian Mendes and Institute of Mental Health Research president Florence Dzierszinski.

Dr. Srividya Iyer is helping transform Canada’s services for mental health for youth and transforming lives as a result.

Dr. Iyer, a professor at the Douglas Research Centre, McGill University, in Montréal, Quebec, conducts research into the mental health of youth. Among this age group, mental illness is a top cause of disability and death. Dr. Iyer’s research aims to create mental health services for youth that are accessible, effective, and welcoming. She also innovates in mental health services for diverse, underserved youths in Canada and globally. She works with youth, family, community, health care, and government partners to change real-world practice and policy.

At a ceremony to present Dr. Iyer with the 2023 Royal-Mach-Gaensslen Prize held 5 December 2023 at the Royal Mental Health Centre in Ottawa, she said her experience working as a psychologist in India and the United States forged her path to this unique research in Canada. Seeing people with serious mental illness returning to hospital multiple times impressed upon her the importance of identifying mental issues and treating them promptly when they first arise—mainly in youth (12 to 25 years).

She said the existing mental health system is not set up for young people. Some services are not welcoming for youth. Many cut off youth services at age 18, sending youth into an adult system that may not be suitable for them. As well, the mental health system is still largely organized by diagnosis, whereas many youth are facing what she called a “mélange” of issues involving life events, mental health and substance use.

Joining her in a panel discussion was moderator Ian Mendes, a sports journalist with The Athletic and advocate for mental health, and Dr. Feodor Poukhovski-Sheremetyev, who started advocating for youth mental health when he was a youth himself and has made it his career. He is currently co-lead of a national youth advisory council for Access Open Minds, a national youth mental health network uniting youth, families/carers, researchers, service providers and decision-makers in transforming services. “How do we engage youth and other stakeholders in the design of research?” he asked. He said researchers are asking youth not only “what kind of system do you want, but what do you need to build that system?”

Dr. Iyer helped establish Access Open Minds. She said the answers to questions about youth involvement in their own mental health services can differ, depending on the community. She mentioned one First Nations Community in which youth took carpentry classes to actually build the spaces for youth. In another community, youth and their families have asked to be involved in hiring the staff who will care for youth.

The important thing, Dr. Iyer says, is that services for youth are a “learning health system” in which continuous feedback provides information on what works and what is missing, which changes the way services are delivered, evolving the system. For example, peer support is being added to services for youth with psychosis, in response to feedback from clients and community.

She says the future includes exploring ethical use of artificial intelligence to analyze large amounts of data or even youth people’s artistic expression to see if it offers clues to their mental health. Mental health services would also benefit from agile, digital systems to help them operate effectively and to determine questions like which young people need brief intervention and which need more formal services.

She looks forward to a future in which young people get the services they need in an environment that supports them to flourish and reach their potential.

Video about Dr. Srividya Iyer’s research on mental health services for youth

If you missed the live-stream of the Royal-Mach-Gaensslen Prize event 5 December 2023, it has been recorded and is available on The Royal’s YouTube channel.

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