Nov. 7, 2023

Prof explores the importance of healthy relationships for community wellness

Deinera Exner-Cortens discusses her research on fostering healthy relationships and the creation of spaces for belonging
a family cooking together
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This story is the second in a four-part series on how University of Calgary researchers and the United Way of Calgary and Area are making progress in the areas of improving mental health, socioeconomic well-being, healthy relationships and social inclusion. Together, we can improve lives in our community. Find out how you can help.

When we foster healthy relationships, we become stronger and able to navigate our stressors and overcome challenges.

In Calgary, four in 10 people are or have been in relationships that are abusive or show signs of abuse. Seniors are most at risk of elder abuse from friends, acquaintances, family members and strangers. This information brings to light the significant effect that healthy relationships have on our present and future well-being.

With the 2023 United Way Workplace Campaign in full swing at the University of Calgary, we are reminded of the various issues that impact the lives of thousands of Calgarians, one of them being the threat against individual and community wellness.

Healthy relationships are an integral part of the city’s well-being, and UCalgary researchers are actively collaborating with United Way of Calgary and Area to help re-imagine programs and initiatives that ensure families live in safe and supportive environments.

Headshot of Dr. Exner-Cortens

Deinera Exner-Cortens

Courtesy Deinera Exner-Cortens

Foundations for overall well-being

Dr. Deinera Exner-Cortens, BSc’07, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at UCalgary whose research focuses on healthy relationships as a foundation for the overall well-being of our society. She describes healthy relationships as being multifaceted, meaning they can present themselves differently and in numerous ways.

When identifying healthy relationships, she looks for three foundational pieces: safety, support, and freedom from violence. While she is aware these elements vary within different cultures, she encourages others to mould them to their own perspective.

“That’s the definition that I use because I think it is quite inclusive, but has the foundational pieces that we would hope to see in people within a healthy relationship,” Exner-Cortens says.

In addition to working at the university, Exner-Cortens is the scientific co-director of a national organization called PREVNet. The organization runs a community of practice that supports 21 youth dating violence-prevention programs; she provides support on research, implementation and evaluation.

When working collaboratively at PREVNet, Exner-Cortens emphasizes that their work is to ensure young generations feel welcomed in all settings. Taking this as her driving ethos, she explains that working with youth is something she loves to do, adding that today’s youth are “very smart, well-spoken and they’ll tell you how it is."

Healthy relationships in society

Healthy relationships have a salient role in society and are mainly based on the innate desire to belong. This need is fundamental to human lives as it is consistent across time, as opposed to being specific to culture or context. Exner-Cortens says our brains interpret social rejections as physically painful and a threat to our survival. Therefore, she adds, “Having relationships is key to not just thriving, but surviving.”

Alongside community partners, Exner-Cortens is trying to create spaces that respond to community needs. A lack of identity-specific spaces can have rippling effects on mental health and well-being in the community. When working with local initiatives, she wants to make sure that “youth are always at the centre of what we’re doing and that their voice is really what’s guiding the work.”

While the real-world outcomes for new programs or initiatives are unpredictable, they are carefully created to support affected communities. Funders like United Way help community organizations stay afloat. “You need that time to be able to try it out, get the feedback, change it and try it again. And so funding that allows evaluating along the way is important,” says Exner-Cortens.

“United Way has been a leader in having standards around evaluation and evidence as part of their funding model.”  

How can we foster healthier relationships?

Exner-Cortens suggests the primary focus when fostering healthy relationships is to secure connections and relationships within a community. By creating spaces where roots can be placed and relationships can grow, individuals are comforted and provided with a space for belonging with consideration for their own intersectionalities. Exner-Cortens commends United Way for supporting organizations that are tailored to different communities.

Exner-Cortens’s goal for the next five years is to create and build networks where individuals who care about the significance of healthy relationships can come together and learn from one another.

Get involved

Students, faculty and staff can give their support by donating to United Way before Dec. 15. To donate, log in with your UCalgary email address and password.

UCalgary’s partnership supports the United Way of Calgary and Area in responding to urgent and emerging community issues, seeding innovative ways to tackle society's biggest problems, and transforming the systems perpetuating societal disparities. One hundred per cent of your donation goes to United Way’s Community Impact Fund which provides stable funding to more than 120 agencies, ensuring Calgarians can access services and supports when and where they need them. Check out United Way’s Impact Calculator to see how far your investment will go in your community.

Deinera Exner-Cortens is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology, in the Faculty of Arts, holds a joint appointment in the Department of Psychiatry at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), and is an adjunct professor with the Faculty of Social Work. She is a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, the Owerko Centre, the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, the Mathison Centre for Mental health Research & Education and the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the CSM.

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