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While Andrea McCracken was an undergraduate student in life sciences at U of T, she saw some of her friends struggling with their mental health. At the same time, her father was diagnosed with cancer and required many medications that she did not understand. Fortunately, working part-time as a pharmacy assistant, McCracken was able to speak with a trusted pharmacist to answer questions, help her understand the medications and possible interactions, and navigate complex health information. All of these experiences changed her career direction.

“That was when I realized the impact of pharmacists and how important they are in our health care system, especially in regard to medication management,” says McCracken, now a full-time research coordinator and part-time master’s student in pharmaceutical sciences at U of T’s Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy. “I hope that in the future we can also build programs where the pharmacist can be there for everyone, in the same that the pharmacist was so helpful to me at that time.”

McCracken, supervised by Lisa Dolovich, professor and dean at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, studies the role of pharmacists in primary care. She recently received a $10,000 fellowship from Inlight Student Mental Health, a new U of T initiative to build research capacity for post-secondary student mental health on campus and improve mental health and wellness outcomes by ensuring student perspectives are included in research.

She is using the fellowship funding to examine the experiences and needs of post-secondary students in managing their mental health medications and how pharmacists can support these students.

Many mental health conditions appear in emerging adulthood

Emerging adulthood, defined as age 18–25, can be stressful at the best of times, as young people transition from youth to adulthood, gain more independence, attend post-secondary school, and navigate new life situations. But, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, it is also a time when early symptoms of diagnosable mental health conditions most often emerge.

Psychotropic medications, which include anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants, and mood stabilizers, can help manage these conditions. But McCracken says that students often have questions about their medications and challenges with medication adherence, side effects, and even stigma.

With the Inlight funding, McCracken is interviewing U of T students from all three campuses to learn about their experiences with managing mental illness with psychotropic medications and medication management needs. She will then explore how pharmacists can support post-secondary students with their medication management, including using technology and digital health care.

“I hope that this research will be the foundation to build personalized, patient-centred programs and trusted resources that will guide the individual through their mental health journey,” says McCracken.

“It’s not just about providing the pharmacist as the first point of contact, but also continuing to provide resources and support students who need help.”

These new programs could be piloted at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy’s Discovery Pharmacy and, if effective, scaled up to benefit students across Canada.

“Life gets really tough sometimes. For students to have a place to go and access the expertise of a pharmacist is important and not utilized very much right now,” says McCracken. “Pharmacists are equipped to support post-secondary students with mental health medication management, but exactly how they can do that is not something that has been uncovered yet. The opportunity is there; we just need to find exactly where it lies.”

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