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Community-based research to fuel new mental health support for youth in Nova Scotia

A group of teens sit on the steps laughing and looking at a phone screen.

by Natalie Jarvis

“As a young person living with major depression and anxiety, I’ve had issues accessing the mental health system in Nova Scotia – in terms of being connected to the care I want to receive,” says Stacie Smith. “I want people in my community to have a different experience.”  

Now in her twenties, Smith is a recognized volunteer and advocate for innovation in youth mental health. She was hired as a research assistant at IWK Health after discovering the work of Dr. Lori Wozney, scientific lead of Integrated Youth Services Nova Scotia (IYS-NS) and reaching out by email.  

Recently announced, IYS-NS will bring free, walk-in mental health and social services to youth and caregivers in eight locations across Nova Scotia – with the first two sites expected to open in early 2025. IYS makes earlier intervention possible by providing a suite of services within communities. These include but aren’t limited to mental health and addiction services. IYS is an opportunity to change the trajectory for young people before mental health and addiction concerns escalate.

Daphne Hutt-Macleod, director of IYS-NS, is working with Dr. Wozney and a diverse team of youth, caregivers, researchers, and partners to connect innovative health science to real-world services.

In early June, the IYS-NS team was awarded $1.45 million from the Canadian Institute of Health Research for their research project Generating Resilience on Our Way to Integrated Youth Services (GROW-IYS).

“The research we plan to engage in with GROW-IYS will help to guide, inform, and validate the operational and service delivery of IYS in Nova Scotia, while simultaneously building research and evaluation capacity with our youth, caregivers, and the communities in which they live, work and play," says Hutt-Macleod.

GROW-IYS applies citizen science – meaning youth are not only participants but actively conducting research.

“Youth have different experiences in the spaces and places within their communities where they feel like their voices are included and they can express themselves” says Dr. Wozney. “Where are their ideas sought out and respected? What do they see as the barriers and inequities preventing them from fully participating in their communities? We want those experiences to shape how we build Integrated Youth Services.”

The research will push IYS leaders to co-develop spaces that truly reflect the best hopes of the youth living in those communities.

“We’re asking youth: What would accessible meaningful service delivery look like to you, especially if it was all in one space?” says Dr. Linda Liebenberg, established researcher and collaborator on the project.

Youth, caregiver, and community voices will also influence how IYS is governed, how partners come together and how youth are engaged within their communities.

Staff wellness, resiliency, recruitment, and retention are also key components of this research.

“Exploring staff experiences is critical, especially if IYS sites will promote the kind of inter-professional and collaborative practice they are designed for. Community-based service providers will be co-located with social workers, outreach and peer-support workers and other health care providers,” says Dr. Wozney. “We’re curious about what needs to be in place to support staff connection and wellness, and to promote staff retention in this new environment.”

The research will include a project that uses e-diaries with options that allow staff to reflect on their experiences in real-time, whether by written text, recorded audio or video, or another accessible format. Results will help identify common needs and supports so the IYS team can respond more quickly.

Other IYS-NS research activities will include defining community-based indicators of success and developing a holistic approach to exploring the economic impact of IYS in Nova Scotia.

The latter goes beyond reducing the value of IYS to a dollar figure. “Youth, caregivers, and community partners can and should be more involved in understanding the economic forces that shape their lives – including their health. We won’t conduct an economic evaluation of IYS for them, we will do it with them,” says Dr. Wozney.

It’s an exciting time for youth mental health in Nova Scotia, as IYS pulls on diverse lenses to develop truly integrated services – resulting in care that is connected, coordinated, and under one roof. Community-based research funding is part of the story of IYS innovation and impact.

To learn more about IYS-NS, visit