Data dive: Learning from mental health and substance abuse treatment experience and outcomes

By Dale Johnson Posted: July 19, 2018 2:00 p.m.

Dr. Kara Fletcher, based at the U of R’s Saskatoon Campus, is an Assistant Professor in Faculty of Social Work and Associate Director of the Social Policy Research Centre.
Dr. Kara Fletcher, based at the U of R’s Saskatoon Campus, is an Assistant Professor in Faculty of Social Work and Associate Director of the Social Policy Research Centre. Photo courtesy of Daniel Hallen

The co-occurring nature of mental health issues and problematic substance use is an emerging area of study. A University of Regina professor will be combing through existing data to examine how effective treatment programs are in Saskatchewan.

“We know that substance abuse and mental health issues are prevalent in our communities in Saskatchewan. I’m interested in why some people find treatment helpful and others do not,” explains Dr. Kara Fletcher, an Assistant Professor in the U of R’s Faculty of Social Work.

“Is there something about the approach that does not work for service users? Are there systemic barriers to access or continued involvement? Are there particular demographics that are predictive of a particular treatment trajectory?”

The Saskatchewan Health Authority tracks treatment experiences, and data has been collected since December 2015. Fletcher will have access to the data from the former boundaries of the Saskatoon Health Region, which became part of the Saskatchewan Health Authority in December 2017.

“While they use this information to inform clinical decisions, this data has not been examined to see who is benefitting from treatment and who is not. I saw this as incredible opportunity to look at data that has already been collected and to see what we can learn about treatment experiences and outcome,” Fletcher says.

“The second phase of the study will include 80 interviews with individuals who both benefited from mental health and addiction services and with those who did not – those who left treatment early or rated their sessions low.  This is a significant part of the project, because we’ll be hearing first-hand from individuals who have had direct experience with our provincially-funded mental health and addictions services about what their experiences and challenges were.”

A grant of $117,213 from the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation will enable Fletcher to carry out her research. The money will be used to hire and train graduate student researchers, pay for research equipment, remunerate study volunteers, and pay for knowledge translation to the community.

Fletcher says it’s well known that there can be barriers (i.e. long wait times, too much time between appointments, incompatible treatment approaches) to access for mental health and substance abuse treatment.

By examining the treatment experience and outcome of people who have attended mental health and substance abuse services, the study will help to determine a clear profile of service users and their experiences, as well as how many clients terminated treatment early.

The study will also assess whether the current services offered are meeting the needs of the population. Specifically, researchers will examine potential absences and successes by conducting interviews with both service users and those who have dropped out of the services.

“Having the opportunity to conduct research with the potential for tangible results that may inform treatment and services for individuals living with substance abuse and/or mental health issues is very exciting. This grant is an important first step in better understanding who is accessing mental health and substance abuse services, as well as their treatment experiences,” Fletcher says.