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Algoma U, medical school agree to create mental health research facility here

“This allows us to develop a new partnership in a mental health and addictions research endeavour here with a new build by Algoma University and NOSM University will be a part of that build,” NOSM University President Sarita Verma says

Algoma University and NOSM University leaders have signed an agreement that will increase the medical school's presence at Algoma’s Sault Ste. Marie campus to expand mental health and addictions research and training opportunities.

Asima Vezina, Algoma University president and vice-chancellor, and Dr. Sarita Verma, NOSM University president, vice-chancellor, dean and CEO signed the agreement at Algoma University on Wednesday.

The Mental Health Research and Training Institute’s home will be at the planned Mukwa Waakaa’igan building. Construction is expected to start in spring 2024 and that building ready for occupancy 18 to 24 months after that.

The cost of that building project is $40-43 million.

There may also be an expansion of the Essar Convergence Centre in terms of housing the institute.

“Through this collaboration, and as part of the first phase of establishing a Mental Health Research and Training Institute in Northern Ontario, Algoma and NOSM University are committed to establishing a strategy between the two universities that respond to community needs related to mental health and addiction through focused research, medical education and training programs at the undergraduate and graduate level, clinical experience and health-based systems of prevention, treatment and healing with particular focus on the unique northern Ontario and rural health needs,” NOSM University stated in a release.

“This partnership is going to be transformative in our community and I believe across Ontario,” Vezina told Wednesday’s audience of Algoma University and NOSM University officials, local health care officials and political leaders.

Vezina said that the stories of trauma shared over the years by Shingwauk Residential School survivors have served as an inspiration to establish a mental health research facility at Algoma University.   

“It’s really pushed me to look at what’s happening in our university, in our community, how we’re treating childhood trauma. Maybe this is the area that we should really concentrate on, how best to graduate our students with that trauma-informed understanding.”

“We know there are some really strong evidence based programs and research coming out across the world and so what we’re very interested in is building programs in partnership with people like NOSM University so that we can ensure that when the community is coming to us for evidence based practices and strong research that we can actually make a difference.”

The need for such a facility is great.

Public health data shows that rates of hospitalization for mental illness or addictions in the Algoma district are 200 per cent higher than in other parts of Ontario.

Rates of opioid-related deaths of 22 people out of 100,000 population are more than double the provincial average and rates of addiction to dangerous drugs such as fentanyl are on the rise.

“This allows us to develop a new partnership in a mental health and addictions research endeavour here with a  new build by Algoma University and NOSM University will be a part of that build, on one floor,” Verma told SooToday.  

“We have a national crisis in mental health and addictions created by trauma, post traumatic trauma, intergenerational trauma, Indigenous health challenges, but also addictions across all levels of society, and poverty, with a serious impact on the economic health and wealth in all communities and we have an obligation to resolve that.”

Verma said it has not yet been determined how many NOSM University students, staff and faculty will be at the Mental Health Research and Training Institute at Algoma University.

“I don’t think we’ll see that until the new build. That is yet to be determined and something we will have to discuss.”  

Verma, however, said that the Algoma University and NOSM University partnership will produce a made in Sault Ste. Marie solution to those problems in northern Ontario.

“We can now focus on the path of a pan-northern medical school meant to service northern Ontario. I’m so proud of this partnership announcement and I’m looking forward to the various number of announcements where we will be able to see the two flags of these universities fly together and continue to do some pretty impressive things in our community and hopefully prove that we can have that made in Sault Ste. Marie solution to a national crisis,” said Sault MPP Ross Romano.

“Having NOSM University established in Sault Ste. Marie, or potentially established in Sault Ste. Marie, is an enormous fulfillment of the promise of what NOSM was when it was established 14 years ago,” said Sault Mayor Matthew Shoemaker. 

“Algoma University and Sault College are recognized as the backbone of our future economic prosperity. We need the development of Algoma University and Sault College to drive our future and finding partnerships like what has been announced today and like what is being explored through NOSM University’s look at expansion is what our community needs to thrive in the years ahead.”

Shoemaker said “from the City’s perspective we will do whatever it takes to have NOSM University located in Sault Ste. Marie because we have a mental health and addictions crisis.”

“When NOSM was announced for Sudbury and Thunder Bay some city councillors called Sault Ste. Marie ‘the hole in the doughnut.’ So today I’m glad to say that we’re filling the hole in that doughnut with this signing,” said Sault MP Terry Sheehan.

“Hearing that there’s now this collaboration is fantastic. I love the Sault and I’m here for a two-week placement and I want to come back here as a doctor,” said Jamie Lucio, a Saultite and fourth year NOSM University undergraduate medical program student.

“I’ve done a lot of placements at the hospital here and I really enjoy the medical staff, the community, the patients are great, so I hope to come back,” Lucio told SooToday, adding that she is considering returning to the Sault in family medicine.

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Darren Taylor

About the Author: Darren Taylor

Darren Taylor is a news reporter and photographer in Sault Ste Marie. He regularly covers community events, political announcements and numerous board meetings. With a background in broadcast journalism, Darren has worked in the media since 1996.
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