Gillian Mulvale is driving change in Canada’s mental health policies and services

Izabela Szydlo, DeGroote Research Writer | Burlington | November 7, 2017

At McMaster University, students, researchers, faculty, and staff collaborate across disciplines to explore and expand their potential in a globally renowned, innovative education and research community, committed to advancing societal health and wellbeing. For the next several months, the DeGroote School of Business will be highlighting researchers that are contributing to this push for a brighter world.

Earlier this year, Ontario announced $140 million in funding for more psychotherapy, supportive housing, and related services for youth. The initial investment over three years, followed by a sustained increase in funding, is meant to ensure faster access to mental healthcare services.

DeGroote Assistant Professor Gillian Mulvale at Kluane Lake, Yukon.

However, it was well before these developments that Associate Professor Gillian Mulvale, Health Policy and Management, became interested in mental health policy and service delivery. She is currently focusing on mental health challenges faced by youth ages 16 to 25. This, she says, is a key developmental stage for young people, as they are at high risk for developing mental disorders and are vulnerable to falling through cracks between systems.

Related: DeGroote-led team helps overhaul Yukon’s child and youth mental health services

“I started my PhD in 2001, and having volunteered as a peer support worker, had an understanding of the importance of people’s lived experiences with poorly coordinated service systems,” says Mulvale, whose research goal is to develop policy and management approaches that promote person and family-centred mental healthcare, and lead to better coordination across health professions, sectors, and stages of life.

After completing her PhD in Health Research Methodology in 2006, and before joining the DeGroote School of Business five years ago, Mulvale worked as a Senior Policy Advisor with the Mental Health Commission of Canada. During this time, among other contributions, she helped design and lead national consultations to establish goals for Canada’s first Mental Health Strategy.

Most recently, Mulvale’s research has adopted an experience-based co-design (EBCD) approach that draws heavily on understanding people’s experiences. An emerging approach to healthcare quality improvement in Canada, it involves patients, family members, and other stakeholders identifying challenging moments in their service experiences and working together to design service improvements.

“Where I saw the gap was in getting people to work together to design systems that will benefit all perspectives,” she says. “That not only involves the experiences of youth and their families, but also service providers who may run into road blocks because of system challenges.”

Mulvale is currently involved in three EBCD studies. The first uses a suite of smartphone and web applications Mulvale and her team developed to gather experience data as people go through the system. Called myEXP, the apps allow youth, after an interaction with the mental healthcare system, to answer a questionnaire on their smartphones. Family members and service providers use an online version to capture their experiences. “The apps are a quick way of getting feedback that can improve service delivery on an ongoing basis,” Mulvale explains.

Another EBCD study, meanwhile, examines the transition from child to adult mental healthcare services in Hamilton and surrounding areas. Participants from eight local healthcare organizations have been involved in co-designing improvement prototypes based on their experiences. Over the next several months, development teams will meet to refine two prototypes.

Finally, Mulvale is contributing to research led by Dr. Sandra Moll, Associate Professor, School of Rehabilitation Sciences. The research uses EBCD to look at employment for youth with self-defined mental health issues, and how they can be supported in entering and contributing to the workforce.

“Where I see the potential for my area of research to have additional impact,” Mulvale says, “is not just strictly health, but also in community services or social enterprises vulnerable populations may require to recover and enjoy a meaningful life. For many vulnerable groups, the biggest piece is fostering mutual understanding.”

Gillian Mulvale is an Associate Professor, Health Policy and Management, at the DeGroote School of Business, and a member of the Centre for Health Economics and Policy Analysis and the Michael G. DeGroote Health Leadership Academy. She holds a PhD in Health Research Methodology from McMaster University, an MA in Economics from Western University, and a post-graduate diploma in Health Services and Policy Research. Mulvale researches issues in mental health policy and service delivery, through the lens of health policy analysis and health economics, to support the development of coordinated, person-centred and recovery-oriented care.

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