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Worry not

By Kelly Foss

Memorial researchers have established an institute that will allow them to advance scientific knowledge on the nature and treatment of anxiety and depression, as well as other emotional disorders.

Dr. Sarah Francis and Dr. Peter Mezo, both assistant professors in the Department of Psychology, are the founders and co-directors of the Memorial Institute for Research and Intervention in Anxiety and Mood (MIRIAM).

Dr. Mezo says MIRIAM has promoted several avenues of productive clinical research. Most notably, its researchers, which include undergraduate and graduate students as well as trainees from related disciplines such as psychiatry, are investigating aspects of the parent-child relationship that are “relevant for the development of anxiety, as well as thoughts and behaviours that maintain anxiety and depression in adults, such as worrying.”

In ongoing collaborations with faculty from the Discipline of Psychiatry, Dr. Francis has been conducting research at the outpatient child and adolescent unit at the Janeway Hospital, and Dr. Mezo has been conducting research at the Short Term Assessment Referral and Treatment (START) clinic at Eastern Health.
“In a short time, the data we have been able to collect, in combination with data obtained from schools within St. John’s and from as far away as the Burin, have helped us create a more complete picture regarding the relationship between parent and child anxiety,” explained Dr. Francis.

The researchers are also using virtual reality (VR), as part of their unique clinical research infrastructure to create environments that may be used in the assessment and treatment of anxiety and depression. Last spring, the Faculty of Science provided the start-up funds to allow MIRIAM to purchase the necessary combination of computer hardware and software.

“For example, someone with a fear of flying can practise overcoming this fear in airport and airplane VR environments,” explained Dr. Mezo. “We are also conducting a study to compare progressive muscle relaxation, an empirically supported psychological treatment, as it is delivered in both VR and “live” conditions.”

He adds, “VR is a cutting-edge modality for the delivery of stimuli that may be applied for assessment and treatment in the emotional disorders and we are still very much at the beginning of realizing its potential.”

This January, Dr. Mezo presented the application of VR to emotional disorders at the Psychiatry Grand Rounds, a lecture series discussing progressive information about the clinical neurosciences, human behavior, and mental health care.