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More community support may be key to treating postpartum depression

PhD student Erin Hetherington one of eight researchers at UCalgary selected to receive Vanier Scholarships
October 4, 2016
Vanier recipient Erin Hetherington is a University of Calgary student and mom to Thomas and Alexia. She is researching solutions to prevent postpartum depression among mothers. The scholarship program helps Canada’s institutions attract highly qualified doctoral students based on academic excellence, research potential and leadership. Photo by Laura Herperger, University of Calgary

Vanier recipient Erin Hetherington is a University of Calgary student and mom to Thomas and Alexia. She is researching solutions to prevent postpartum depression among mothers. The scholarship program helps Canada’s institutions attract highly qualified doctoral students based on academic excellence, research potential and leadership. Photo by Laura Herperger, University of Calgary 

Selected through a competitive process, Vanier scholars are top doctoral students from a range of disciplines who are already making significant achievements in their fields. One of this year’s recipients, Erin Hetherington, exemplifies why the University of Calgary values the support Vanier scholarships provide to attract these future leaders to campus, and position them for success in academia, industry and the community.   

Imagine bringing home a new baby, but feeling only sad and overwhelmed. Postpartum depression hits one in seven moms in Canada. For many, antidepressant drugs can help. However university researcher Erin Hetherington is looking for additional solutions to prevent depression — in the community.

“I’m specifically interested in challenging the ‘one-size-fits all’ approach. Every mother and every family is unique,” says Hetherington, herself a mom who defies the norm. She’s earning her PhD at the University of Calgary while raising small children: Alexia, 5, and Thomas, 3.

“As a new mother, I certainly had my hands full. I didn’t have connections or family here in Calgary which made it more challenging. I think about the number of immigrants arriving to Calgary, including the Syrian families, who don’t have any support system here and perhaps this research will help them avoid postpartum depression.”

Studying mental healthy priorities of new moms

Hetherington’s research into community-based solutions has earned her a prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). The program helps Canadian post-secondary institutions attract highly qualified doctoral students based on academic excellence, research potential and leadership. She is one of eight University of Calgary PhD students to receive a Vanier Scholarship for 2016. 

“Receiving a Vanier is a significant achievement,” says Lisa Young, vice-provost and dean, Faculty of Graduate Studies. “It supports highly skilled and innovative students who do not hesitate to take on forms of leadership, not just in their research, but in their communities.”

Hetherington’s research project will use data gathered from 3,000 mothers in Calgary to determine the priorities of staying mentally healthy. The mothers belong to the All Our Babies cohort led by Hetherington’s supervisor, Suzanne Tough, PhD, a professor at the Cumming School of Medicine’s departments of Paediatrics and Community Health Sciences, and an investigator at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute. 

Having good social supports can help

“I’m really interested in how women connect with other people to build support systems. We know that having good social supports can help prevent depression,” says Hetherington.

The researcher is keen on learning which specific elements in a community support system serve moms and dads the best. She says this support could be in the form of help to perform day-to-day tasks for new moms, more frequent and freely available prenatal classes, or simply creating more online resources. These sorts of questions are being examined in her research which she hopes to complete in three years.

Hetherington has dedicated years of study into women’s mental health and the impact mothers exert on communities. Hetherington first got interested in women’s health studies during a student exchange in Venezuela. She saw how community connections helped women raise healthy children despite poverty.

Her interest continued in the following years, before and during the completion of a master’s of science in international public health at Harvard University. That's where she got involved in several health organizations and worked as an adviser to the World Health Organization, a program associate for Oxfam America, and public health educator in Mexico.

Researcher attracted to UCalgary's Global Health Program 

Upon completing her master’s, she looked for more opportunities involving women's health and was attracted to the Cumming School of Medicine's Global Health Program. She obtained a research associate role which took her to the African nation of Tanzania to work with mothers and infants.

Striving for and achieving high academic levels, Hetherington was selected in 2014 for the University of Calgary’s Eyes High Doctoral Recruitment Award and in 2015 received the Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions Graduate Studentship. She gives credit for her success to her two supervisors, saying, “I wouldn’t be where I am without their incredible support and mentoring.”

 “I am very appreciative of this Vanier Scholarship as it contributes to my research and opens doors with others studying women’s mental health studies, allowing me to develop greater scientific skills and improve my leadership goals.”

Hetherington’s supervisors are Suzanne Tough and Sheila McDonald, an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Paediatrics at the Cumming School of Medicine.

Vanier Scholarships support next generation of  leaders 

Vanier awardees represent the next generation of leaders in Canada. The University of Calgary the recipients are invited to join the Graduate Leaders Circle, a community of scholars that fosters the development of graduate student leaders.

PhD students who have been awarded the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships for 2016 are:

  • Christopher Logan Cahill, Vanier NSERC, Biological Sciences
  • Erin Hetherington, Vanier CIHR, Community Health Science                       
  • Teja Klancic, Vanier CIHR, Kinesiology   
  • Rachael Anne L'Orsa, Vanier NSERC, Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • Jenine Rocha Leal, Vanier CIHR, Community Health Science                        
  • Juan Javier Marrugo-Hernandez, Vanier NSERC, Chemistry
  • Erin Laurel Stephenson, Vanier CIHR, Clinical Neurosciences
  • Haley Alleson Vecchiarelli, Vanier CIHR, Clinical Neurosciences   

Valued at $50,000 for three years, the Vanier Canadian Graduate Scholarship was created to attract and retain world-class doctoral students who demonstrate a high standard of scholarly achievement and leadership that supports and improves their communities. The Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships program aims to establish Canada as a global centre of excellence in research and higher learning. It is available to both Canadian and international PhD students studying at Canadian universities. The scholarships are a central element in the Government of Canada’s science and technology strategy which sets out a multi-year framework for improving Canada’s long-term competitiveness. For more information on Vanier Scholarships, visit the Faculty of Graduate Studies Award Opportunities website. 

Led by the Hotchkiss Brain InstituteBrain and Mental Health is one of six strategic research themes guiding the University of Calgary toward its ‘Eyes High’ goals.