Dr. Judith Brouillette: a psychiatrist who cares about health care workers

Foundation, in collaboration with Dr. Judith Brouillette, psychiatrist

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As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on after nearly a year, every action can make a difference when it comes to mental health. That’s why the Montreal Heart Institute Foundation is proud to be involved in various ways to help the community and is supporting the 11th edition of the Bell Let’s Talk Day which will take place on January 28.

For her part, Dr. Judith Brouillette, head of the psychiatry department at the Montreal Heart Institute (MHI), is doubling down to find ways to safeguard the mental health of health care professionals. Here’s an overview of her innovative research and impressive career.

Every road leads to mental health

Before becoming head of the Institute’s psychiatry department, Dr. Judith Brouillette showed an interest in several other fields including mathematics and pharmaceutical sciences. She has earned numerous honours, awards, and grants for her exemplary career and was initially interested in studying the heart’s electrical system prior to dedicating herself to psychiatry. Today she acts as both researcher and psychiatrist. A combination that suits her and one that allows her to collaborate with an exceptional team.

Heart disease and mental health: a two-way link

A team of psychiatrists at the Montreal Heart Institute? While that might seem surprising, there is a significant link between heart disease and mental health. Dr. Brouillette provides two examples: “Some patients affected by heart disease may experience depression or psychological imbalance. Others may suffer from anxiety. Because the symptoms of a heart attack can resemble those of a panic attack, some patients may need support to tell them apart and learn how to live with both diseases or to adjust their medication. Interactions between medications must be evaluated in every individual case.”

What a psychiatrist does at the Institute

Psychiatry is a specialty that can vary greatly depending on the professional’s journey, their work environment, and their career goals. At the Institute, a psychiatrist’s work is twofold.

1. Outpatient clinical activities

At the Institute, a psychiatrist will intervene by appointment for an outpatient consultation, usually with patients who have been referred by a cardiologist. In this way, they are called upon to diagnose mental health issues, prescribe appropriate treatments and oversee “episodes of care,” which is providing therapy and education related to heart disease and mental health.

2. Activities with hospitalized patients

A psychiatrist is also present at the Institute to diagnose and recommend intervention options. Because of the average age of the Institute’s patients, confusional states and episodes of delirium are not uncommon. Dr. Brouillette is therefore often called upon to find the underlying problems to these conditions.

Topical research projects

As a researcher, Dr. Brouillette oversees myriad research projects that are close to her heart.

Torsade: a research project on the risks of heart medication on mental health

Torsade, one of Dr. Brouillette’s basic research projects, studies the adverse cardiac affects of medication used to treat mental disorders. For instance, some antidepressants and antipsychotics can, in very rare instances, be associated with a form of arrhythmia called “torsades de pointes”.

This project aims to add scientific data to find a balance in managing the fear of rare, yet severe side effects and the consequences of undertreating mental disorders.

Burnout: a clinical research project related to the pandemic

When the pandemic began, Dr. Brouillette immediately foresaw it would have an impact on the mental well-being of health care professionals. She therefore launched a research project to assess their health condition with regards to burnout, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress during several phases of the pandemic. This innovative project has received financial support from the Ministère de l’Économie et de l’Innovation and the Montreal Heart Institute Foundation.

Interestingly, the Burnout project is carried out with both biological and psychological tools (the results will be revealed shortly!). About 500 participants filled out a questionnaire and submitted a hair sample for analysis. Their level of cortisol, a stress hormone, was measured three months into the pandemic and before the coronavirus even appeared. These results will allow Dr. Brouillette to determine if the most affected health care workers are those whose levels of cortisol were already high before the pandemic or those who experienced the most significant increase of cortisol after it began.

In addition to these fascinating findings, Dr. Brouillette reveals the real reason for the project: to identify potential solutions to reduce stress triggers and raise awareness about the factors of risk to reduce their impact.

Psychological balance during the pandemic

While the Burnout project is still ongoing, one fact is evident: “even though health care workers already experienced high levels of stress, we are currently observing a global rise in post-traumatic stress in this field,” said Dr. Brouillette.

On a more personal note, Dr. Brouillette admits that the pandemic has had an impact on her own work-life balance. As a mother of three, she has had to take measures to ensure her own mental well-being after an intense period of work at the beginning of the pandemic. Thanks to the support of her spouse, healthy lifestyle habits, and the support of her loved ones, the situation quickly rectified itself. However, the episode serves as a reminder to Dr. Brouillette that no one is immune in a time of crisis.

Bell Let’s Talk Day: the perfect opportunity to raise awareness

The Montreal Heart Institute Foundation is proud to be associated with the 11th edition of the Bell Let’s Talk Day which will take place on Thursday, January 28 to help raise awareness about mental health.

Our partner Bell is one of the first organizations to focus on issues of mental health. According to Dr. Brouillette, “they deserve credit because it takes courage to discuss the topic and enlist public figures to do so!” These kinds of initiatives help destigmatize people who are dealing with mental illness.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on every aspect of our lives, including mental health. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 38% of Canadians say their mental health has been negatively affected. Furthermore, people who were already suffering from mental illness before the pandemic are twice as likely to say that their mental health has deteriorated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s why the Foundation wants to contribute to creating positive change.

Positivity and solidarity to conserve your energy and remain hopeful

During this second COVID-19 wave, Dr. Brouillette has a message for everyone: “To all those who feel vulnerable during the pandemic, keep in mind this is also an opportunity to take care of yourself and to conserve your energy to start the new year on the right foot. And to those who haven’t been affected as much by the pandemic, don’t feel guilty because you are doing well but make sure to support your loved ones who are going through a hard time! One day, they will return the favour.”

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