March 13, 2024

What’s a radical mental health doula? Glad you asked

UCalgary research pilot project studies impact of specialized doulas and seeks participants
A group stand in front of a statue holding awards
The Radical Mental Health Doula team.

Michelle Martel uses her own life experience to inform how she supports people as a radical mental health doula, along with a belief that everyone should be able to thrive in a community where they feel accepted.

“I meet people where they’re at and I support them in the decisions they make,” says Martel, a third-year Bachelor of Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies (BCR) student who has experienced addiction and homelessness and has adopted mental health and recovery strategies of her own.

A doula is a trained professional who provides expert guidance and support to people through significant health-related experiences, such as childbirth. While doulas have traditionally supported pregnant women through the birth of a child, doulas increasingly work in many different areas of care, such as postpartum, bereavement, mental health, and dying.

The Radical Mental Health Doula (RMHD) Project is an ongoing study within the Cumming School of Medicine’s (CSM) Department of Community Health Sciences. Participating doulas apply client-centred and continuous care, but what’s radical is they expand on the traditional support and care model with a lens that is inclusive and advocates for underserved and marginalized groups of people. The project is an effort to uphold the rights and dignities of people undergoing mental health challenges to address existing gaps in support.

RMHDs support and enable people experiencing mental health challenges to move through encounters with different services more smoothly, with less violence, and in ways that would better uphold their rights and dignities, say project co-leads Dr. Joanna Rankin, PhD, associate professor (teaching) and Dr. Tiffany Boulton, PhD, assistant professor (teaching), both with the BCR program. 

“People experiencing mental health struggles too often face a system that is overburdened and not able to meet their individual needs. Our research is looking to the doula model of care, and the associated values could provide a framework, outside of the birth context, to provide mental-health supports that are meaningful and impactful for those needing them.”

RMHD was co-developed as a community-engaged research project involving a team of 20 researchers and service users in all stages of the research. The goal was to implement a community-based mental health support model that would be inherently feminist, intersectional, anti-racist, ant-classist, anti-ableist and trans-inclusive. 

The project applies the core values of the doula model, which are support, education, comfort and advocacy. The aim is to provide individualized mental-health support based on lived experience, to free up limited health-care and professional resources, and to privilege the voices, needs, dignity and rights of people who use mental health supports.

The first phase of the project pilot, completed in the fall of 2023, had eight doulas paired with individuals for six months. Each doula has an in-depth profile on the RMHD website that their prospective partners can review to help determine their preference for a match. The pilot program is a free service provided to anyone over 18 with a self-identified need for mental health support.

Doula and co-researcher Ian Kinney is an advocate for the individuals he is paired with.

“Many people navigating the health system don’t know what privileges they have,” Kinney says. “As doulas, we have access to the information and expertise our clients need, even if that’s as simple as making their voices heard.”

Although doulas are not medical professionals, he adds, they have training and experience with those systems, including lived experience. “The kind of care and attention that people are asking for is what the doulas are prepared to respond to. People need an empathetic ear.”

It’s a need the RMHDs understand first hand. Martel hopes her personal recovery journey can empower and encourage wellness in the people she supports.

As the program prepares for its second pilot, the research team envisions a large-scale implementation across Canada, to allow for an additional kind of mental health support that is broadly accessible, cost effective, flexible and tailored to individual need.

Learn more about participating in the RMHD program

Joanna Rankin is an associate professor (teaching) with Community Rehabilitation & Disability Studies program in the Department of Community Health Sciences, and a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine.

Tiffany Boulton is an assistant professor (teaching) with Community Rehabilitation & Disability Studies program in the Department of Community Health Sciences and a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine.

Those in need of mental health support or immediate assistance can find local and campus-based resources here.

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