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Atlas Institute undertakes and supports research that seeks to improve the well-being of Veterans and their Families. Our research is driven by a commitment to mental health equity and is informed by Veterans Affairs Canada’s seven domains of well-being, which include the social determinants of health. We design our research projects so they answer the questions that matter to Veterans and their Families.

Our current projects include appraising the evidence for peer support, creating a sound measure of moral injury, and assessing the prevalence of intimate partner violence in military and Veteran Families. Whether we are leading studies or supporting our research partners in their endeavours, Atlas aligns its research efforts with what Veterans and their Families tell us are their unique mental health care and treatment needs.

In 2022-2023, Atlas and its research partners launched 13 new studies last year focusing on topics including:

  • Aging
  • Cannabis
  • Measuring moral injury
  • Military to civilian transition
  • Neurofeedback
  • Problematic anger
  • Suicide prevention
  • Traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  • Treatment-resistant PTSD

Purpose

Our researchers are driven by curiosity and a desire for meaningful change. They have made significant advances when it comes to understanding:

  • The causes of PTSD and related mental health conditions
  • Preventative interventions for mental health problems
  • Improvements to a broad range of treatments and therapies

We are also researching how characteristics that shape who Veterans and their Families are as people—such as gender, age, race, and sexual orientation—also shape their well-being outcomes.

Approach

Atlas is committed to being a leader in equitable, inclusive and relevant research. We know that Veterans and their Families have the lived and living expertise that is vital to ensuring that our research is meaningful and successful. That’s why Veterans and their Families are our partners and collaborators in every part of our research process.

At the core of our work is the lived experience of Veterans and their Families. We act on their recommendations for what topics and concerns should be priorities for research. We ask for their guidance throughout the research process—from creating research questions, study aims and designs to launching recruitment and knowledge mobilization activities. This collaborative approach ensures that all research conducted or supported by Atlas is responsive to the community’s unique needs, goals, and values.

Our principles extend to intentional integration of the diversity present in these communities. All studies conducted or supported by Atlas incorporate an intersectional/SGBA+ framework. This means that every project considers how multiple characteristics—ability, age, culture, education, ethnicity, gender, geography, income, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation—interact with one another to shape differences in mental health needs and outcomes.

Our Research and Policy team collaborates with researchers and clinicians in Canada and around the world. By merging our collective expertise, we build strong networks capable of taking on the questions that matter to Veterans and their Families. Atlas research is ultimately designed and executed to ensure that Veterans and their Families, service providers and researchers have access to the latest evidence that can then be translated into programming, practice and policy.

Intended outcomes

Our differentiated approach to research will help to improve collective understanding and inform systemic changes in mental health care for Veterans and their Families.

Generate new Canadian knowledge about PTSD and related mental health conditions that responds to the needs and priorities of Veterans and their Families.

Undertake research that answers the questions that are the most urgent for Veterans and their Families.

Prioritize Veteran and Family in research on PTSD and related mental health conditions.

Identify and address the information gap about trauma-related mental health to improve care and treatment options for Veterans and their Families.

  • Publish policy recommendations and contribute to the policy conversation on emerging and timely issues, such as moral injury, military sexual trauma (MST) and peer support.
  • Inform evidence-based mental health policy decisions as they relate to the well-being of Veterans and their Families.

Our research teams

The Atlas Institute is fortunate to have three teams dedicated to research. Our teams apply their combined expertise from social and developmental psychology, neuroscience, psychiatry, philosophy, epidemiology, social work, and public health to the study of Veteran and Family mental health and well-being.

The Applied Research team’s work is informed by the social determinants of health and a bio-psycho-social approach to mental health.

With a strong emphasis on interview and survey-based research methods, we strive to answer underexplored questions.

We use qualitative research methods to capture and describe Veterans’ and Families’ lived experiences of a certain phenomenon. In these studies, we strive to offer a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the nature and meaning of human experiences. In parallel, we recognize the importance of quantitative research in providing a broader perspective and generating robust data to support service and program improvements. Our statistical analyses examine trends over time, systemic issues, and health disparities among Veterans and their Families.

By blending qualitative and quantitative research methods, we bring together the power of personal stories and statistical evidence to drive change. Our interdisciplinary approach allows us to conduct research from multiple perspectives, ensuring a comprehensive understanding of the complex experiences of Veterans and their Families.

The Research Partnerships team endeavors to enhance knowledge and research capacity throughout Canada. Through the provision of funding opportunities and collaborative partnership agreements, including targeting emerging researchers, we strive to expand our understanding of diverse subjects pertaining to the mental health and well-being of Veterans and their Families.

Annually, we offer collaborative funding opportunities through a transparent and equitable request for proposal process (RFP), ensuring a competitive selection process.

To secure funding, researchers are required to demonstrate, within the RFP framework, how their research aligns with the overarching mission of the Atlas Institute, how their project will positively impact Veteran and Family communities, and how individuals with lived and living experiences will be actively engaged throughout every stage of the research endeavor.

The specific topics addressed through our funding rounds are tailored to reflect the identified needs derived from a comprehensive analysis of research and knowledge mobilization gaps, and invaluable insights shared directly by the Veteran and Family communities.

The Clinical Research Team aims to better understand the neurobiological basis of the mental health conditions that can affect Veterans and their Families and to develop novel treatment and assessment tools for these conditions.

Here, we take a multipronged approach to investigating the neural pathways that may lead to mental illness. By partnering with the Brain Imaging Centre at the Royal Ottawa Hospital, we implement neuroimaging methods (i.e., fMRI, PET and  EEG) to study the brain. Importantly, our brain imaging studies are often paired with qualitative research methods (i.e., 1:1 interviews and focus groups), such that the lived experience of Veterans and Families effectively guide our study design and planned analyses.

We are also developing a number of novel treatment interventions for trauma and stressor-related disorders (including neurofeedback, and cognitive behavioural therapies), as well as new assessment tools for mental health conditions.

Further, our team is involved in training the next generation of clinician-scientists at the University of Ottawa within the School of Psychology and the Faculty of Medicine graduate programs (i.e., teaching courses and supervising graduate students).

Areas of specialization

Our areas of specialization offer a framework to guide the Atlas Institute as it undertakes research in support of Veteran and Family well-being. The focus areas align with Atlas’s mandate to build the Canadian evidence base on Veteran and Veteran Family well-being, and the organization’s strategic zones of focus, which reflect our commitment to integrating the perspectives of Veterans and Veteran Family members in our work.

  • Risk and protective factors
    • Characteristics or events that increase or decrease the likelihood of a given mental health outcome
  • Biological, psychological, and social mechanisms
    • Underlying factors that, alone or by interacting with one another, contribute to some aspect of mental health
  • Screening and assessment
    • Tools designed and used to identify the presence and/or severity of a particular mental health problem or illness
  • Treatments, interventions, and supports
    • Pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical responses designed to improve, maintain, and support well-being including but not limited to: medications, cognitive therapy, peer support, and acupuncture
  • Service design and delivery
    • Features of health care services, including structure and function, access and use, navigation, and Veteran and Veteran Family experience

Mobilizing knowledge

Making research accessible and understandable to the people who need it is core to what we do at Atlas. Our research teams work closely with knowledge mobilization and implementation specialists to bridge the gap between academic knowledge and the diverse communities we serve, recognizing that the impact of our work lies not only in publishing evidence-based research, but also in effectively communicating it to Veterans, Families and other stakeholders. Through clear and accessible resources, presentations and engagement initiatives, we collaborate to foster awareness, inform policy discussions, and empower individuals to make informed decisions regarding Veteran and Family well-being.

Research spotlight

The Athena Project

Led by the Applied Research team, the Athena Project is a new initiative dedicated to research and building community in support of women Veterans’ well-being.

There is a lot that remains to be discovered about the lived experiences and health of women Veterans in Canada. Many researchers have done work in this area but there is still a lot to understand so that women Veterans can receive the support and care that they need to flourish and thrive.

While some experiences will be similar regardless of sex or gender, there are some factors that are important for or impact only women. One important area, identified in our recent Women Veterans Dialogue Series, is the need to better understand how experiences from service might relate to mental health outcomes as a woman Veteran. This is the overarching objective of the Athena Project.

The Athena Project takes a community-based approach, which integrates people with lived experience into the research team to ensure that our study is informed by lived experience and is meaningful to women Veterans. The Athena Project Working Group is composed of 14 women who served in the CAF and RCMP and Atlas Institute researchers, all of whom are passionate about advancing research in the field of women Veterans’ well-being.

The working group is a space where researchers and women Veterans are learning from each other to shape new research at the Atlas Institute. The group’s insights and expertise provides context and depth to our work, and ensures that our research reflects the real-world priorities of those it aims to serve. The working group is harnessing the power of shared learning, collaboration, and empathy, and reflects the value the Atlas Institute places in research being genuinely shaped by those most affected by its outcomes.

Neurofeedback therapy

To contribute to the growing body of evidence showing that neurofeedback is a promising treatment for PTSD and other mental health concerns, the Atlas Institute has initiated a program of research focussed on exploring its efficacy .

When people develop PTSD specific regions of their brain can be over-or under-activated, leading to thoughts, emotions, moods, and behaviours that can be unhelpful or distressing. Neurofeedback, a non-invasive therapy that does not involve pain or medication, helps individuals to gain control over their brain activity. By learning how to self-control brain activity, they can respond and think more clearly, balance their emotional responses, and manage triggered behaviours such as avoidance, anxiety, or panic.

There are two primary types of neurofeedback therapy available. One uses electroencephalography (EEG) to recalibrate brainwaves, while the other uses real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to recalibrate patterns of brain activity and the connections between different brain regions. Both forms of neurofeedback therapy allow clinicians to assess altered brain functioning resulting from trauma and provide feedback that helps individuals learn to self-regulate brain activity that can cause PTSD symptoms.

A collaborative clinical trial between the Atlas Institute for Veterans and Families, the University of Ottawa, Western University, and the University of Geneva has shown the potential of EEG neurofeedback therapy to non-invasively heal trauma-affected brain regions. Two published studies from this trial show the efficacy of neurofeedback training in resetting EEG brainwaves and improving emotion regulation among individuals with PTSD. Participants who underwent neurofeedback therapy had significantly reduced PTSD severity scores following treatment, with a remission rate exceeding 60% at the three-month follow-up, meaning they no longer met diagnostic criteria for PTSD.

The Atlas Institute, in collaboration with Western University, has recently launched a real-time fMRI neurofeedback study in individuals suffering from PTSD symptoms. In this study, we will see whether individuals with PTSD can learn to self-regulate their own brain responses to emotion inducing words. In this study, we will examine the effects of multiple sessions of fMRI-neurofeedback and compare changes in PTSD symptoms and brain activity for two different brain areas that are associated with PTSD (posterior cingulate cortex and amygdala. An additional group of participants receiving a “fake neurofeedback signal” as a control group. Here, our primary goal is to see whether fMRI neurofeedback training over three separate sessions (one per week) will help reduce PTSD symptoms.

The Minority Mosaic Study

Minority stress is the excess stress, discrimination, and prejudice that individuals face due to their minority status/stigmatized identity (i.e., race, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, etc.). For instance, sexual minorities experience distinct, chronic, and uncontrollable stressors related to their stigmatized sexual orientation identity (e.g., discrimination, hate crimes, internalized homonegativity, and microaggressions/everyday indignities). Together, these experiences can lead to significant adverse changes in thoughts and behaviours, which can either compromise the mental health of sexual minorities or lead to resilience i.e., “strength through adversity.”

At the Atlas Institute for Veterans and Families, we are conducting research to uncover the effect of minority stress exposure on the brain in order to promote change, foster resiliency, and help those who have been psychologically injured by these experiences. Our research examines both the lived experience, and the adaptations to the brain and body, that are associated with minority stress exposure among sexual minorities with intersecting identities. Therefore, the study consists of two complementary parts: phase 1 involves qualitative interviews to examine lived experiences of individuals exposed to minority stress; and phase 2 examines the neurobiological markers of minority stress exposure. Data collection for phase 1 has been completed and we are currently collecting data for phase 2 at the Brain Imaging Centre (BIC) housed at the Royal Ottawa Hospital. Specifically, we are examining how minority stress exposure (i.e., discrimination) is associated with functional adaptations in the brain using fMRI  data. Taken together, these findings will help to elucidate the neurobiological basis of minority stress and will inform how systemic societal oppression influences risk and protective factors for mental health outcomes.

Mental health and well-being of Afghan-Canadian Language and Cultural Advisors (LCAs) who served with the Canadian Forces abroad

A small group of civilians, known as language and cultural advisors (LCAs for short), were a critical – yet largely unknown – part of Canada’s over decade-long presence in Afghanistan. As recent immigrants to Canada, they were recruited to support our 40,000 soldiers, often going “outside the wire” (or off base) to provide linguistic and cultural advice. At approximately 65 people, they were a small but mighty group.

Despite their critical role in the conflict in Afghanistan, there is little awareness about the existence, role and contributions of LCAs. There is also limited knowledge on their mental health status and support needs after their return home to Canada. In fact, no studies or data specifically on LCAs seem to exist. Instead, much of what we know about them comes from news stories and research on similar groups like contractors. Research on Canadian Armed Forces  members tells us that the post-service transition period is critical and may be when support needs are highest. This may also be the case for LCAs given similarities in their deployment experiences, making this lack of knowledge especially problematic.

As a first step in building knowledge and improving understanding of this particular group, the Atlas Institute for Veterans and Families led a study on the experiences of former LCAs, guided by an advisory group. What emerged was a significant gap between what is available and what is needed, with many describing an absence of appropriate mental health and wellbeing supports despite a preponderance of lasting impacts.

Although Veterans and their families have options available to them when they need support for injuries related to their service, it is less obvious where LCAs and their families can turn. Because LCAs are considered contractors, neither they nor their family members are eligible for mental health services from Veterans Affairs Canada, unlike the soldiers they accompanied. Directed to go through their provincial workplace safety and insurance boards instead, the uniqueness of their situation meant that some experienced significant difficulties accessing services or had their claims denied – a decision currently under review in Ontario.

Notably, in response to the Taliban’s takeover in 2021 and resultant safety risks to the families of those who worked with international forces, the government recently announced a temporary policy change, extending permanent residency to family members of LCAs. This policy is similar to that for local interpreters introduced back in November 2021. Although also described by some as restrictive, this policy change is welcome recognition of the immense contributions, risks and sacrifices made by LCAs and prioritizes the safety of their families.

Nonetheless, there is more to be done to close these described gaps in awareness, knowledge and action. This study represents a starting point. More work is needed to build on these findings and to better understand what LCAs have lived and are still living through.

One potential way forward that emerged through engagement related to this study is to bring the contributions of LCAs into public and political discourse, such as via media stories or education events. Another focused on the provision of dedicated funding for more research on LCAs, which can then inform the design of policies or programs. Over time, this awareness and knowledge can transform into action – namely, the development of appropriate services – to ensure LCAs and their families get much needed access to mental health supports. Baseline awareness and understanding are crucial for meaningful action.

Afghanistan was not the first – and will certainly not be the last – mission where LCAs have played an important role. For example, they also played a role in Bosnia and Iraq. It is important to take the right steps now to create a climate of understanding and respect for their contributions and needs, paving the way forward for LCAs and other civilian contractors sanctioned by the Government of Canada to receive the support they need, let alone deserve.

Public policy portfolio development

Public policies are developed at all levels of government (federal, provincial, territorial and municipal). These policies are developed with input from citizens, government staff and elected officials. Public policies can be guidelines, rules, regulations, laws, principles or directions that specify what should be done, by whom, for whom and how it is to be done. The Atlas Institute initiated three interrelated foundational projects (set to be completed August 2023) to map out existing public policies and associated gaps and to set priorities for impact:

  1. A policy scan specific to Veterans and Families mental health and well-being using academic and grey literature.
  2. Policy engagement with organizations that serve an intermediary, advocacy and/or knowledge mobilization role.
  3. An internal policy framework based on Canadian and international evidence and leading practices.

Getting involved in research at Atlas

Recruiting studies

Interested in participating in research? Research participation helps expand our understanding of Veteran and Family mental health and well-being and can support the improvement of treatments, programs, and services. The Atlas Institute leads and supports research projects and new opportunities to participate, with varying levels of involvement, regularly become available. Check out a few of the studies currently looking for participants!

Led by Atlas

The neural correlates of minority stress: Uncovering systemic oppression related to the intersectionality of identity with neuroimaging and machine learning
Led by Director of Clinical Research, Dr. Andrew Nicholson,  Atlas Institute

(Find out if you’re eligible to participate! Email ella.bawagan@theroyal.ca)

Self-regulation of post-traumatic stress disorder (ptsd) neurocircuitry using multiple sessions of real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging (rt-fMRI)
Led by Director of Clinical Research, Dr. Andrew Nicholson, Atlas Institute

(Find out if you’re eligible to participate! Email ella.bawagan@theroyal.ca)

Supported by Atlas

Feasibility and effectiveness of a cognitive rehabilitation intervention for veterans with mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI)
Led by McMaster University Talklab

Studying the effectiveness and implementation of Sudarshan Kriya Yoga for Canadian Veterans with PTSD
Led by Sinai Health System – Bridgepoint Collaboratory for Research and Innovation

Brain measures linked to hyperarousal in PTSD using MRI
Led by The University of Ottawa’s Institute for Mental Health Research at the Royal

Experiences of Intimate Partner Violence and help-seeking among Veterans and Family Members
Led by Phoenix Australia – Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health

Other ways to get involved

The Atlas Institute works closely with Veterans, Families, service providers, and researchers to bridge the divide between research and practice. To expand our connections with the Veteran and Family community, we have developed a volunteer Cadre of Canadian Armed Forces Veterans and former members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The key goals we aim to achieve with the Cadre are to:

  • Help Atlas Institute engage and work with a larger and more diverse group including Francophone Veterans and Families
  • Improve our ability to connect with individuals with lived expertise who are available to participate in projects, including research projects
  • Expand our ability to link individuals with lived expertise to partners and other collaborators who need this expertise for their work Members of the Cadre would have opportunities to collaborate with us in a range of ways:
    • Advising us on issues important to the community
    • Informing and guiding projects
    • Participating in surveys, panels, webinars and town hall events

Latest publications

Moral injury

Exposure to moral stressors and associated outcomes in healthcare workers: Prevalence, correlates, and impact on job attrition
2024-02-09

Anthony Nazarov, Callista A Forchuk, Stephanie A Houle, Kevin T Hansen, Rachel A Plouffe, Jenny J W Liu, Kylie S Dempster, Tri Le, Ilyana Kocha, Fardous Hosseiny, Ann Heesters, J Don Richardson

European Journal of Psychotraumatology
Read the paper


Moral injury PTSD

The independent and combined impact of moral injury and moral distress on post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms among healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic
2024/02/09

Andrea M D'Alessandro-Lowe, Herry Patel, Bethany Easterbrook, Kim Ritchie, Andrea Brown, Yuanxin Xue, Mauda Karram, Heather Millman, Emily Sullo, Mina Pichtikova, Andrew Nicholson, Alex Heber, Ann Malain, Charlene O'Connor, Hygge Schielke, Sara Rodrigues, Fardous Hosseiny, Randi E McCabe, Ruth A Lanius, Margaret C McKinnon

European Journal of Psychotraumatology
Read the paper


Women Veterans

"Proud, Brave, and Tough": Women in the Canadian Combat Arms
2024/02/05

Emalie Hendel, Kate MacEachern, Alma Haxhiu, Barbara T. Waruszynski

Frontiers Sociology
Read the paper

Research funding opportunities

The Atlas Institute for Veterans and Families is introducing new research funding opportunities:

Research compass newsletter

Research Compass is Atlas Institute’s new regular newsletter about our Veteran and Family well-being research.

In each issue, you can expect a diverse range of content, including research highlights, links to access our latest results, a behind the scenes look at how we conduct research, and updates on ongoing projects. We will also provide information about upcoming events, training opportunities, and resources that can further enhance your understanding and engagement with research.

Research Compass: Research Newsletter – Issue #1 (August 2023)

Explore our research studies

Join our recruiting studies and help turn your experiences into learnings that inform treatments and policies. You can also access information about the processes and the results of our non-recruiting and completed studies.