As many as one in three of us will experience significant mental health issues in our lifetime.
Loss of our mental health can lead to depression, apathy, anxiety, loss of the sense of our own self, and suicide. The latter is the ninth leading cause of death in Canada, with males being the most vulnerable.
The Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) and the Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research and Education, are working in conjunction with dedicated members of the community, responding to the challenges in our understanding, education, and improvement of mental health by developing the Mental Health Initiative for Stress and Trauma (MIST).
This initiative was developed as an enduring and impactful legacy to the untimely death of Mike McClay, a beloved member of the Calgary community.
Mike McClay grew up playing lacrosse and hockey in SE Calgary. Losing his leg in a motorcycle accident at age eighteen never slowed him down. He was a survivor. He quickly found community in organized amputee sports including volleyball and hockey. He was a competitor. Mike proudly represented Canada on the world stage as a founding member and assistant captain of the Canadian Amputee Hockey Team which went undefeated in multiple appearances at the ISIHF World Championships. He was a winner. Mike loved spending time in the mountains skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking and hiking with family and friends. He was fun.
Mike started his Environmental Sciences career with Clifton and Associates in Calgary, moved on to Matrix Solutions and Cenovus Energy before joining Suncor Energy as a Senior Regulatory Advisor. He enjoyed working with his colleagues in the Oil & Gas Industry and truly thrived in a team setting. He was a valuable leader.
“McClay” as he was known to many of his friends, touched so many people’s lives and will be fondly remembered for being such a friendly, positive, and loving person who always went out of his way to say hello. His enthusiasm for life was truly contagious. But above all else, Michael will be remembered as an amazing father and a loving husband. He treasured his family more than anything, selflessly making sure they were safe and taken care of before thinking of himself. He was their protector.
Mike took his own life on October 22, 2021. His family and friends are devastated to learn that he was suffering in silence from depression. Mike survived a fall from a ladder in November 2019 which caused a severe concussion. After 2 years of slow progress, his community thought Mike had fully recovered, and they celebrated that he was back to normal. He wasn’t and he never asked for the help he needed. The help he often offered to others. Now he is gone.
The vast community of Mike’s family and friends have dared to dream of a Legacy for Mike and they are proud to partner with the Hotchkiss Brain Institute to make a difference and create needed change in mental health.
The Five Pillars of MIST
The Mental Health Initiative for Stress and Trauma aims to accomplish success in five key areas impacting emotional and mental well-being.
Stress is a critical factor in the impairment of mental health because it affects our emotional state. How emotions are generated, how they help or impair our response to the challenges of life, and how stress impacts our emotional state are all critical questions that must be understood if we are to improve mental health.
The HBI and Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research and Education, have an outstanding group of scientists. These scientists will seek to understand how the brain is changed by stress. Already we have discovered changes in specific chemical signals after stress that alter our emotions and our behaviors. Emotions are internal states, generated in response to specific experiences, but also evoked by how we remember previous experiences. Our emotions are private. We choose how, when, and to whom we reveal them. Understanding how the brain generates emotion is one of the great challenges to our mental health and will be a primary goal of MIST.
If we were able to detect who was experiencing stress, and when they were experiencing it, we might be able to help mitigate that stress. Yet, from the outside, it is extremely difficult to tell who is stressed and who is not. The MIST team will study this problem. One possible approach is to detect the stress response as it’s happening by using a wearable biosensor. We are actively developing technology that detects changes in an individual’s emotional state and allows them to act and change outcomes. These and other strategies will be explored within the MIST framework.
While stress is one critical factor in our mental health, it is also clear that physical brain trauma impacts brain circuits, making individuals more susceptible to stress factors that alter mental and emotional health. The HBI and Mathison Centre, through MIST, will work to understand whether physical trauma like a concussion can impact emotions and behavior in similar ways to a stressful experience.
We know, for example, that individuals with concussions show stress hypersensitivity, suggesting an overlap in many brain mechanisms of stress and injury when it comes to mental health. The HBI also has one of the top international groups of scientists working to understand brain injury brought on by a concussion. This group includes clinicians, psychologists, and kinesiologists who monitor and treat concussion in both adolescents and adults. Their discoveries in concussion management in the community are driving policy change at the national and international level. The HBI is also developing a cadre of young scientists who seek to understand how concussion changes brain circuits. This level of exploration allows them to discover new molecular targets that may lead to therapeutic approaches. Individuals in the concussion team are also working with the stress biosensor development team to test the sensor and integrate it into their studies.
Based upon the critical knowledge described in the above accordions, the MIST program will support our team of scientists in developing new therapeutic strategies for stress disorders and depression. This is already occurring within the HBI. For example, new strategies are being developed to treat major depression as clinicians and scientists work together to test new therapies that take discoveries from the lab to the clinic. There are a number of critical strategies that will benefit directly from the support of the MIST program, as well as provide a deeper understanding of brain function through the studies described above.
An important part of MIST will be the ability to educate the public about stress, brain trauma, and emotional health.
This is particularly important for members of the public who fail to or are unable to reach out for help, in particular men, as they are more acutely affected by these phenomena. The Hotchkiss Brain Institute has been an innovator in developing public outreach and educational programs. We have an outstanding partnership with Calgary Public Library that includes a flagship community program called Think Big YYC. Hosted by Jay Ingram, this program brings the latest in neuroscience advances to the Calgary community, but there is a critical need to significantly expand this program and other outreach initiatives to meet the immediate needs of the Calgary community.
Men, in particular, must be targeted with this outreach, given that traditional mental health resources continue to face challenges and barriers to success. Some potential opportunities include outreach in the work environment, informational podcasting to improve reach within the community, and social media campaigns surrounding this initiative. This outreach effort will be facilitated by the strong communications team of the HBI.
Partnerships with other organizations are critical and the HBI and Mathison Centre are already partnered with organizations such as the City of Calgary and their mental health strategy, as well as community partners such as the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Mental Health Commission of Canada, and the Calgary Police Service to name a few. Active community engagement will be facilitated by the Mathison Centre Community Connections Committee.