“Community Brain Art” – understanding and engaging with research findings

Many dream of breaking down barriers and making academic research more accessible. This is exactly what Lianne Cho and colleagues are doing at the University of British Columbia, with the ‘Community Brain Art’ programme. Cho is looking at depressive symptoms in the homeless and precariously housed populations of Vancouver’s Downtown East Side (DTES). The Community Brain Art project is meant to deliver the quantitative findings from UBC Professor William Honer’s longitudinal Hotel Study, begun in 2008, to a wider audience in a more relevant and easily digestible way.

In Honer’s continuing Hotel Study, participants were recruited from the single room occupancy (SRO) hotels from the DTES, the downtown community court, and St Paul’s Hospital emergency room. The study’s objectives are: to understand the people who lived there, how they came to live there, how they developed the mental health and the physical conditions they have, and how those things changed over time. The underlying idea is that understanding the relationship between all these factors might enable solutions on how to best support this population.

Participants have monthly health assessments through questionnaires about depressive symptoms they experience, potential psychosis, and substance use. They are asked if they have seen a doctor in the past six months, have had any head injuries, and if their social supports are sufficient.

The team on the Community Brain Art program that grew out of the Hotel Study includes researchers, medical students, doctors, social workers, and occupational therapists, enabling them to reach community members, peer support workers, and service users. Team members are as diverse as possible, better to reflect the needs and the values of their community.

Cho, who is in the MD/PhD program at UBC and Jake Stubbs, PhD, collaborated with several others in designing the Community Brain Art programme. They were awarded the Public Scholar Initiative given to doctoral candidates whose work must contribute directly to the public good.

The importance of mental health and wellness

The vision for the ‘Community Brain Art’ program is that it becomes a continuous sustainable project which shares important results and information from the Hotel Study with working professionals and the public. The goal is to inform the community about the people’s struggles with mental health, and promote the importance of mental wellness within all communities.

Lianne Cho. | Photo courtesy of Lianne Cho

“The program is made up of three core branches or pillars.” explains Cho.

Pillar one consists of informative infographics aimed at physicians and front line and healthcare workers, eventually to be expanded to the larger community.

The second pillar is the community brain art sessions, drop-in group sessions, where people can make art related to their experience with brain health. Participants join facilitated conversations about brain health to help break down barriers and promote understanding.

The third pillar, a mural, was created based on the themes generated by the community workshop conversations about of childhood experiences, the importance of keeping in touch with one’s cultural roots, and the significance of having a sense of safety, to name a few. Cree artist, animator, and film maker Jesse Gouchey painted the mural, titled Pimohtêhon (passage, travel through life).

Improving brain health and mental wellness

Cho, who grew up in Toronto, hopes to become a physician and have that face-to-face interaction with patients. She says a high school science fair project sparked her interest in science. At Brown University in the USA with its liberal arts curriculum, she recalls, “I got to learn about wellness from all sorts of different perspectives, biology, chemistry, economics, history, anthropology, education, urban studies, all of which gave me a really well-rounded look at health and well-being.”

Mural by Jesse Gouchey | Photo courtesy of Lianne Cho

She wants to develop research initiatives further, so she can drive process change and contribute to improving brain health and mental wellness. She believes it is important to work towards a more integrated system of healthcare with multiple disciplines working together to address all the issues and causes of mental health, and collectively to facilitate assessment, diagnosis, and treatment.

“It’s vital to recognising the importance of tackling mental health from all the different angles. Whether it’s housing, community, addressing childhood trauma, or access to medication, these are all equally important,” she says. “For me it feels like all roads lead to here and most of all I really felt like I wanted to give back to the community.”

More about the Community Brain Art project can be found here: