“My great great grandmother signed her marriage certificate with an ‘X’ because she couldn’t read or write,” explains Jehannine Austin, Canada Research Chair in Translational Psychiatric Genomics and associate professor in UBC Vancouver’s Department of Psychiatry and Department of Medical Genetics.
Austin speaks with candour and empathy about the “hard-core working-class background” that fuelled her interest in mental health and genetics and is quick to point out she was the first on either side of her family to reach the post-graduate level and the first woman in her family to go to university.
”By the time I’d graduated, I’d accumulated all of this education that felt like an enormous privilege which I felt really powerfully driven to try to use in order to benefit others in some way.” Austin pauses and then adds quietly: “That’s what it’s all about, using this privilege I’ve accumulated to make things better in some way.”
In addition to her work leading the translational psychiatric genetics lab at BC Children’s and Women’s Hospital site, Austin recently became the executive director of the BC Mental Health & Addictions Research Institute. One might feel intimidated by her list of achievements but in person, you quickly come to realize that her ‘super power’ is, in fact, her ability to make people feel completely at ease and welcomed, which in turn allows for honest, frank, discussions.
Down to earth, witty and sincere, Austin’s excitement about her work is palpable. As she explains the methodology behind her counselling process, it’s clear that removing the stigma and shame around mental illness is something she takes personally. Not only has she herself suffered from depression and anxiety, she’s seen many patients over the years who, in one way or another, have suffered and needlessly blamed themselves for their own conditions because they weren’t aware of all of the genetic and environmental factors contributing to their condition. She wants to change all that.
A: I think the broader integration of genetic counsellors into medicine — throughout all medical disciplines —could produce interdisciplinary collaboration that would help physicians to help their patients benefit to the fullest possible potential from genomic medicine.
In the future that I like to imagine, we all have a family genetic counsellor in the same way that we have a family doctor today. We would meet with our family genetic counsellor periodically throughout our lives and they would help us make meaning of our own genetic information as it becomes salient, and they would help us to consider health behaviours that we may want to adopt as they become relevant in the context of our genomic information. The demand for genetic counsellors is increasing dramatically, and around the world we are working towards training greater numbers of people in this discipline to meet the increasing need.
Genetic counsellors take what we understand from research about the causes of a condition and we make that understandable to those who don’t have any specialist background in that area.