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Studying the impact that COVID-19 has on families who are impacted by mental illness

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Dr. Rudolf Uher is a psychiatrist and researcher at Nova Scotia Health.

By Sarah Murphy

For the last eight years, Dr. Rudolf Uher has been leading the Families Overcoming Risks and Building Opportunities for Well-Being (FORBOW) study.

His team works with families, including those where one or both parents are living with mental illness.

They evaluate whether a variety of early interventions can prevent these illnesses from developing in children to break the cycle of children developing types of illness similar to their parents.

“The FORBOW study has been following more than 300 families from across Nova Scotia, including some of the families who are most affected by mental illness. This means one or both parents have either schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder,” said Dr. Uher.

When the pandemic hit, it was clear to Dr. Uher and his team that Nova Scotians were being affected in many ways.

“Looking at the way the pandemic was impacting people’s mental health was really an extension of what we were already studying,” said Dr. Uher.

It was important for the team to look at what was happening to these families during the pandemic and identify what kind of supports may help them in the future.

“This was unique because there really had been no other time when families spent this much time at home together. There are usually many other sources of support for children, at school or activities, but when we went into lockdown, we were with our families for the better or worse,” said Dr. Uher.

The study increased the number of interviews with families from once a year to three times a year when the pandemic began.

They continued to evaluate each individual’s mental health provisions, sleep patterns, activity levels, routines, stress levels, coping mechanisms, sleep and learning.

Dr. Uher said the responses from participants came as a surprise.

“We ask these individuals the same questions every time and we were surprised to see no average worsening in the mental health of our parent participants during the pandemic. While we saw some parents who are struggling because they have the whole family at home, we see many others who are benefiting from things like spending more time together and less time commuting.”

The FORBOW study has noted that many of the participants are seeing mental health benefits from the supports put in place by government and Nova Scotia Health.

“Things like CERB, and continued provision of mental health services from Nova Scotia Health without interruptions, have greatly benefited these parents.”

Dr. Uher said that while the parent participants did not report average worsening of their mental health, the team did see a change in young people aged 16 to 24.

“For the older children and young adults in the study, we did see more symptoms of distress including stress and anxiety, and we saw significantly more than last year. These are young adults who were distressed from being unable to socialize, but also from a lack of opportunities and a lack of new challenges.”

The FORBOW study is still evaluating the impact that COVID-19 has on families who are impacted by mental illness and they are always welcoming new participants.

Dr. Uher said that he has these families to thank for the success of the study.

“Nova Scotians are so generous with their time. They are accommodating and willing to participate in meaningful projects. Every year we see over 90 per cent of those who started with us. We now have more than 1,000 participants who have completed over 4,000 assessments. The complete information on long term course of health makes the knowledge coming from our research uniquely valid and meaningful.”

If you are a parent in Nova Scotia who is living with a mental illness and are interested in participating in the FORBOW study, please visit forbow.org.