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Researcher pushes for better palliative care for people with chronic mental health conditions

A University of Alberta nursing researcher is working to change the way people with schizophrenia and other chronic mental health conditions in Canada are cared for at the end of their lives.

One in five Canadians experiences a mental health issue in their lifetime, and yet there is little focus on these conditions in palliative care, according to new research from Tanya Park, associate professor in the Faculty of Nursing.

Tanya Park

Tanya Park

Lauren Kennedy-West

Lauren Kennedy-West

Tim Barlott

Tim Barlott

“If you have schizophrenia (or any other chronic mental health condition), it carries with you your whole life, and it really just struck me that at the end of your life, this thing that has dominated your life is now just dismissed,” Park says. “Once you go to palliative care, the focus switches to whatever you are there for.”

For the study, Park interviewed mental health professionals about how palliative care might help their patients, building on a previous study on palliative care professionals’ knowledge of mental health. She discovered that the two groups know little about each other’s areas of expertise.

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Park is now testing an online cross-disciplinary educational tool to teach palliative care professionals more about mental health. Her ultimate research goal is to develop and test a new model of palliative care for patients with chronic mental health conditions.

Park co-developed the teaching tool with Lauren Kennedy West, who runs the Living Well With Schizophrenia YouTube channel, which has 191,000 followers worldwide. Both hope healthcare workers will learn more about the condition from people with the diagnosis.

Park notes that people with chronic mental health conditions have a higher risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, obesity and smoking-related lung diseases.

“People with a mental illness continue to be marginalized and not cared for, a failing of the health system and the healthcare workers who ‘care’ for others,” she says.

For the most recent study, Park carried out in-depth interviews with 16 mental health professionals, including 12 registered nurses, two registered psychiatric nurses, a social worker and a psychologist, from a variety of care settings including inpatient, emergency, intensive care and geriatrics. She found the quality of end-of-life care they could provide was limited by the complexity of the patient’s needs, social isolation, limited collaboration with healthcare professionals from other disciplines, and misconceptions about palliative care.

In the earlier paper, 20 end-of-life care professionals were interviewed. Again, Park found that disciplinary silos and a lack of training in mental healthcare prevented them from providing adequate palliative care to patients with chronic mental health conditions.

The next phase of Park’s research seeks to reimagine what caring could mean for people with chronic mental health conditions at the end of their lives. Thanks to a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Development Grant, Park is teaming up with co-investigator Tim Barlott, occupational therapist and assistant professor in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. Park is also a member of the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute.

Using a technique called “collective narrative,” they will bring together small groups made up of someone living with a chronic mental illness, a nurse working in palliative care and a research assistant with lived experience of mental illness. This storytelling approach acknowledges that care is relational and goes both ways in the nurse-patient relationship.

“Through collective narrative, we aim to help palliative healthcare practitioners think differently about care and to change the experience of care for people with schizophrenia in their dying,” Park says.

| By Gillian Rutherford

Gillian Rutherford is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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