Get to know: Vanier Scholarship recipient Holly Mathias

Scholar aims to understand and improve the wellbeing of women who provide unpaid care for people who use drugs.

Nisa Drozdowski - 15 July 2021

The School of Public Health will welcome new PhD student and Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship recipient HollyHolly Mathias Mathias to campus this fall to examine the experiences of women providing unpaid support for people who use substances in rural Canada. 

More than 19,000 people have died from overdose since Canada declared an opioid overdose crisis in 2015 and according to Mathias, many of those deaths can be attributed to poor access to crucial services meant to keep them housed, safe and alive. “Access to health and social services for Canadians who live in rural areas is especially challenging because most services are located in urban areas,” said Mathias. “In these situations, family and friends, most often women, step in to provide much needed support, and their experiences are not well understood.” 

In her teen years, Mathias developed a mental health promotion group that has educated more than 2000 Nova Scotian youth on bullying and mental health, earning her the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.  Her work continued at Queen’s University during her undergraduate years. She helped develop  a mental health education/anti-stigma initiative for students living in residence, advocated for increased embedded counsellors-in-residence to improve access to mental health supports for first year students, and helped Queen’s Career Services develop a mental health intervention to reduce career-based anxiety amongst students. These experiences led her to further her education with a master of arts in health promotion at Dalhousie University

Since completing her MA, Mathias has been working as a research coordinator at Dalhousie University on a CIHR-funded study examining access to addiction treatment programs in Atlantic Canada. 

Reflecting on her own life in rural Nova Scotia, Mathias noticed that family, friends and community members would often come together to provide support for loved ones when access to services was limited. These experiences are not unique to Nova Scotia. "Our health system is sustained through unpaid support to a value of about $25 billion per year," Mathias said.

Combining her education in health sciences with her personal interest and experiences, Mathias’ community-based doctoral research will seek to understand the experiences of women who provide unpaid support for people who use substances in rural Canada, and how providing that service impacts their physical, emotional, mental, social and financial wellbeing. It will also aim to understand how structural, political and social factors such as race and stigma shape those women’s experiences. 

“My research could help to inform strategies to improve the wellbeing of both the women who provide unpaid support and people who use substances in rural Canada, and beyond,” Mathias said. “And, this may be transferable to other stigmatized health and social issues, such as mental illness.”

Mathias will complete her research and degree under the supervision of Assistant Professor Elaine Hyshka.