BRITISH COLUMBIA

Emily Morris, UBC Student, Wins Mitacs Award For Outstanding Innovation

11/24/2013 12:47 EST
Courtesy of Emily Morris

A UBC masters student has beat out hundreds of other academics to win a major national research award for her work around genetics and mental health.

Emily Morris won the masters Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation. Connecting forward-thinking researchers with partner organizations, Mitacs recognizes five students at different academic levels each year.

"It was a huge honour," Morris, who was nominated by her supervisor, told The Huffington Post B.C. "It was something that I wasn't expecting to happen. I was honoured to be recognized with other great researchers as well."

The 28-year-old won the award for her work on a genetic condition called 22q11.2 deletion syndrome.

People with this condition are missing a part of one of their chromosomes, she says, and can have an array of problems like heart defects, immune problems, and learning disabilities, as well as a higher risk of developing psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia and psychosis.

Earlier studies show that parents were well aware of the possibility of physical problems in children with this condition, but barely knew of the psychiatric risks. Morris's research explored why that is.

She surveyed over 300 medical geneticists in North America.

"I asked them about their approaches to discussing the various features of the condition," she said. "Depending on the age of the patient at diagnosis, and also looking at how often they discuss psychiatric risks and how that related to stigma.

"Mental illnesses are highly stigmatized conditions," she continued. "I was interested in seeing if negative attitudes about mental illness might be influencing the way that [medical professionals] approach talking about things with patients."

Morris's study found that geneticists with higher levels of stigma towards mental illness were less likely to discuss psychiatric risks with their patients' families. And that, said Morris, isn't very good.

"I think it's really important for families to be informed about these psychiatric risks," said Morris, who was in Ottawa earlier this week to accept her award. "Parents and families need to be aware, so that as soon as their child starts showing symptoms, they know to go get help right away."

As far as how to improve this, Morris said education is key.

"Education [can] help reduce that stigma in medical geneticists and doctors in general," she said. "And educate them about the importance of early intervention."

Another great way to combat mental health stigma is through exposure, she said. It's about "meeting people with mental illnesses and realizing they're no different than anyone else."

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