Research collaborations tackle challenges faced by rural BC residents

UBCO associate professor Nelly Oelke is one of the researchers receiving funding from the interior university research coalition for her work in mental health resilience in rural communities

Interior university research coalition funds research to improve the lives of those living outside large urban centres

The challenges facing rural and remote communities do not always make front-page news, but this lack of attention does not make them less important, especially for those who live there.

Supported by the Interior University Research Coalition’s (IURC) Regional/Rural/Remote Communities (R3C) Collaborative Research Grant, three Interior university research teams will address the complex problems faced by British Columbians who live outside large metropolitan areas. The funded projects grapple with disparate topics such as aging, water treatment and mental-health resiliency in the face of climate change.

“Rural and remote communities in non-metropolitan areas are experiencing economic, social and environmental changes that are profound and complex,” says Janice Larsen, IURC director.

“It is vital to understand and support the healthy and stable development of our society, our economy and our environment,” she adds.

Each of these three research teams receives $40,000 to complete their projects.

TRU associate professor Wendy Hulko, joined by UBCO’s Kathy Rush and UNBC’s Sarah De Leeuw, leads a project investigating the results of the Interior Health’s repositioning of health-care services for seniors. The intent of repositioning services was to enable older adults to live at home longer, reduce hospital admissions and delay residential care.

One of the outcomes of Interior Health’s service restructure was the creation of health and wellness centres in Kamloops and Kelowna. The centres provide primary health care for older adults and were designed to create better access to health services for vulnerable populations. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will certainly play a role in the study, says Hulko.

“One of the goals of these wellness centres was to get people connected to care, but we will have to find out how those services have been impacted by the pandemic and how the pandemic is impacting the ability of older adults to age in place,” she explains.

UNBC Environmental Engineering professor Jianbing Li leads research to develop an effective, low-cost, portable water-treatment system for remote and rural communities. Due to a lack of resources, rural communities have long faced challenges in accessing potable water, and consumption of untreated water poses health risks. Joined by Rehan Sadiq and Kasun Hewage, professors in UBCO’s School of Engineering, the research team aims to develop a household water-treatment system that would remove common contaminants from rural water sources. By the project’s end, a prototype of the water treatment system would be demonstrated in the community.

“Having reliable access to a safe drinking water supply is essential for the healthy development of rural, regional and remote communities,” says Li. “Our interdisciplinary research team is working toward discovering a water treatment solution, training graduate students and developing meaningful partnerships with relevant communities in British Columbia.”

UBCO associate professor Nelly Oelke leads a project that aims to foster resilience in rural and remote communities by developing a greater understanding of the mental-health impacts of climate-change events.

“Climate-change events can result in extreme physical and psychological trauma for vulnerable populations living in rural and remote communities,” says Oelke. “PTSD, depression, anxiety, increased substance use and suicidality are all found to increase during and after problematic flooding, wildfires and drought, which are becoming more and more common in BC and around the world.”

She adds that many of the approaches used to address mental health relating to natural disasters are also used in pandemics and the evidence-based solutions they develop will provide increased support to Indigenous peoples, people living in poverty, children and first responders.

The research takes place in the Similkameen region of BC’s Southern Interior, including Keremeos, Hedley and Princeton, in addition to Ashcroft in the Thompson-Okanagan region and Burns Lake in Northern BC. Collaborators on this project include Sue Pollock (interim chief medical health officer at Interior Health), UNBC’s Davina Banner, TRU’s Bonnie Fournier and UBCO’s Lauren Airth and Carolyn Szostak. One outcome of this project is the development of community-based action plans for mental-health support, as research shows rural communities are disproportionately impacted by climate change.

“This is a very exciting project and allows me to build upon the relationships I have already developed in Ashcroft, while also allowing me to work alongside two really fantastic researchers,” says Fournier. “The R3C program is innovative and unique, and I haven’t seen anything like it across Canada.”

About UBC’s Okanagan campus

UBC’s Okanagan campus is an innovative hub for research and learning founded in 2005 in partnership with local Indigenous peoples, the Syilx Okanagan Nation, in whose territory the campus resides. As part of UBC—ranked among the world’s top 20 public universities—the Okanagan campus combines a globally recognized UBC education with a tight-knit and entrepreneurial community that welcomes students and faculty from around the world in British Columbia’s stunning Okanagan Valley.

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