Jan. 17, 2023

UCalgary announces inaugural Chair of Mental Health Initiative for Stress and Trauma

Matthew Hill will lead the MIST program to explore how the brain reacts to physical and emotional stressors
Matthew Hill
Matthew Hill James May

The Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) at the Cumming School of Medicine is pleased to announce Dr. Matthew Hill, PhD, as the first Mental Health Initiative for Stress and Trauma (MIST) chair. As chair, Hill will lead MIST, a newly launched program that explores how stress and trauma impact the brain and what can be done to create healthier outcomes.

As an internationally recognized researcher in his field, Hill spent two decades exploring the neurobiology of stress and how it relates to the development of psychiatric illness. He has led his lab for 11 years, working to better understand how stress hormones modify brain function, behaviour and metabolism. His work has been extremely influential to other researchers in the field and led to several clinical trials for novel medications to treat anxiety and trauma-related disorders.

“Stress is the primary cause of mental health conditions, particularly mood and anxiety disorders and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Many people across the community experience a lot of stress, but don’t recognize the signs that can be critical red flags about the impact it is having,” says Hill. “An important aspect of MIST is to share the research we’re doing at the University of Calgary with the general public in a way that resonates with them personally.”

From tragedy to positive action

MIST was created at HBI after tragedy struck in October 2021. Mike McClay, a charismatic, outgoing husband and father of two, died by suicide. His friends and family were not only devastated but also completely caught off guard. McClay was secretly suffering from depression, the severity of which he kept from those closest to him.  

Two years earlier, McClay suffered a concussion after falling from a ladder. That, along with other emotional stressors, may have been the fateful combination. McClay’s family and friends will never know the “why.” In Canada, 4,500 people (12 people a day) die by suicide. Not wanting any more families to go through this kind of experience, McClay’s family and close friends turned to UCalgary to find an answer.

Mike McClay, second from bottom right, with friends at Baldface Lodge near Nelson, B.C.

Mike McClay, second from bottom right, with friends at Baldface Lodge near Nelson, B.C.

Courtesy of Trevor Johnson

That led to the idea for MIST. To set this vision into motion, a committee was formed and a campaign began to invite support. Community champions quickly stepped up with generous contributions. The momentum created by those founding donors led to tremendous support from the community during UCalgary’s 2022 Giving Day campaign. Among 153 donors, $175,000 was raised for MIST. Combined with the Giving Day match, it reached over $300,000.

Initiative has strong philanthropic and community support 

Thanks to these early MIST champions, the program has surpassed $1 million in philanthropic support in its first year. This progress catalyzed important developments, including the induction of Hill as the first MIST chair. Philanthropy and community support will continue to be essential to advancing the program’s reach and impact.   

“The creation of MIST and this new chair is a true testament to the power of philanthropy. Out of a tragic situation, community members responded in such a powerful way and the University of Calgary is proud to be a part of it,” says Andrea Morris, associate vice-president and chief development officer.

“Understanding how the brain can change and alter after being exposed to both physical and emotional trauma is an important part of understanding and treating brain and mental health problems,” says Dr. David Park, PhD, director of the HBI. “Establishing this new MIST chair will help us advance that work even further.” 

With Hill’s experience, track record and strengths in community outreach, he is the ideal candidate to take MIST to the next level. Under his leadership, MIST will propel research that can lead to critical breakthroughs, new treatments and increased education and awareness across the community.

Focus on endocannabinoid system

One focus of Hill’s work is the endocannabinoid system and its impact on the brain’s ability to process stress. The endocannabinoid system is what THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, interacts with to create its effect on the brain and body. Hill’s research has shown that some people who are living with stress-related psychiatric disorders seem to have impaired endocannabinoid function.

Matthew Hill with members of his research team

Matthew Hill with members of his research team: (Back row) Georgia Balsevich, Gavin Petrie, Robert Aukema, Matthew Hill, Andrei Nastase; (Front row) Catherine Hume, Samantha Baglot, Savannah Lightfoot.

Courtesy of Matthew Hill

Hill is also collaborating with UCalgary’s Dr. Leah Mayo, PhD, the recently appointed Parker Psychedelic Research Chair, who is exploring interventions that can boost endocannabinoid levels as a way to treat PTSD. Hill and Mayo are currently involved in clinical trials to explore the efficacy of new treatments.

UCalgary researchers are also increasing their focus on traumatic brain injuries, like concussions, and how they affect our ability to process emotional stress. Left unchecked, brain trauma can lead to the development of psychiatric conditions.

“Through MIST, we will examine how pre-existing stress can influence the outcomes of concussions and, vice versa, how concussions can impact the way stress is processed. It’s not something that’s currently well understood, and MIST is working to fill that gap,” says Hill.

Now, with a chair in place, the momentum MIST gained in the last year can accelerate through further transdisciplinary collaborations and community outreach programs.

If you are interested in supporting brain and mental health research through the Mental Health Initiative for Stress and Trauma, you are welcome to donate now.

The University of Calgary is committed to enhancing the mental health of students, faculty and staff and provides a variety of mental health resources. Learn more about our Campus Mental Health Strategy and Suicide Awareness and Prevention Framework.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, you are not alone. If your life or someone else’s is in danger, call 911 for emergency services or call the Distress Centre Calgary at 403-266-4357 or Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566.

Matthew Hill is a professor in the departments of Psychiatry and Cell Biology & Anatomy at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). He is a full member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, the Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research & Education and the Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute at the CSM.