Transforming mental healthcare for moms


Mental illness affects up to 20 percent of pregnant and postpartum women, with the majority of these women either hiding or downplaying their symptoms. Each day in her clinical practice, Dr. Lucy Barker, fellow at Women’s College Research Institute (WCRI) and psychiatrist at Women’s College Hospital (WCH), sees the widespread impact of mental illness on women and their families, where the perinatal period is a key opportunity to intervene to prevent negative outcomes.

Mentored by Dr. Simone Vigod, scientist at WCRI and chief of psychiatry at WCH, Dr. Barker’s research aims to understand all the factors that contribute to the development of mental illness and barriers to recovery to address them at the source.

“My research focus on marginalized populations emerges from my longstanding involvement in social justice work,” says Dr. Barker. “My goal is to contribute to the development of equitable mental health services and solutions to address the social determinants of mental health, so that no woman, or family, has to suffer the consequences of untreated mental illness.”

Dr. Lucy Barker
Dr. Lucy Barker

Dr. Barker and her team found that approximately 1,400 postpartum women in Ontario visit an emergency department (ED) to address a mental health concern each year – with over half of these women seeking treatment at an ED before seeing a family doctor or psychiatrist. Rural women and women living in low income neighbourhoods are at an even higher risk of not seeing a different healthcare provider for their mental health concerns prior to going to the ED. These findings suggest worrisome gaps in mental health services for new mothers.

For her thesis as a PhD student at the University of Toronto’s Institute for Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, Dr. Barker is exploring the outcomes of postpartum women who visit emergency departments for mental healthcare. She is especially interested in identifying groups of women who are at risk of not receiving adequate care and who face potential serious consequences if their mental illness goes untreated.

“I feel very fortunate to be training at an organization that so committed to improving women’s health,” adds Dr. Barker. “I hope that by improving our understanding of barriers to care, my research will help transform mental health services that more effectively meet this population's needs.”

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