Health and Wellness

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Research Axis: Health and Wellness

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “[h]ealth is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” While this definition of health has been widely criticized for being both too broad and too narrow, it draws attention to several key aspects of health: first, that health includes a sense of wellness or well-being and, second, that health is a function of many facets of life beyond biological and medical conditions. Consequently, the Institute’s research axis on health and wellness will examine the ways in which gender is implicated in the physical (biological and environmental), mental, and social facets of health and wellbeing. Research has clearly shown that biological differences between the sexes, as well as the social context and cultural constructs surrounding men’s and women’s gender roles and identities, have a direct bearing on the health status of individuals. Pronounced differences with respect to gender are evident in access to and provision of health care services, as well as in the identification, definition, treatment, and regulation of health issues in Canada and worldwide.

McGill researchers based in several departments across the faculties of Medicine, Agriculture and Environmental Science, Education, and Arts have sought to better understand the gendered aspects of health and wellbeing. These researchers have explored such diverse issues as how women experience the process of childbirth and menopause in different cultures, why young women in sub-Saharan Africa are more likely to be infected with HIV/AIDS, the informed consent process among non-literate women in clinical trials, how medical technologies have been used to regulate women's fertility, why women are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety or depression, differences in the aging process and health risks of men and women, the development and use of pharmaceuticals in treating women throughout their lifecycle, the health consequences of sexual and physical abuse, and how individuals' gendered environments shape their health outcomes—to name only a few examples. Although these researchers often approach these issues from different—sometimes even opposing-- methodological and theoretical perspectives, by bringing them together around the common theme of gender, health, and wellness, the Institute for Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies seeks to create a supportive environment in which to initiate a vibrant discussion among health researchers at McGill.

McGill is already a widely recognized leader in health research. The Institute’s work will further bolster its reputation by creating a centre of excellence for research into gender, health, and wellness. Its multi-disciplinary approach will draw on expertise in the humanities, social sciences, helping professions, and biomedical research. It is hoped that this research axis will attract researchers working on feminist health issues as well as health issues relevant for transgendered persons, queer communities, and sexuality studies generally. The work on health and wellness will be organized into three broad sub-themes: sexual and reproductive health, environmental and health interactions over the life course, and critical approaches to biomedicine and its institutions. Crosscutting each of these sub-themes will be a focus on sex (as a health determinant and as a biomedical construct), gender (as a social and cultural construct), and sexual diversity. Moreover, building on McGill’s increasing involvement with global health research, each sub-theme will encompass health issues from around the world. While some researchers will focus on health issues that are most salient in Montreal and Canada, others will investigate pressing health issues in other parts of North and South America, Western and Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

Working Groups

Sexual and Reproductive Health: Sexual and reproductive health encompass several issues that are central to the study of gender and health. One particular concentration of research within this sub-theme will focus on the medical, biological, social, cultural, political, and psychological dimensions of pregnancy and childbirth. This focus of research will be both local and global in perspective, ranging from the childbirth practices among immigrant groups in Montréal to the maternal health outcomes of impoverished women in India. This sub-theme will also examine the use of reproductive health technologies and treatment of diseases such as breast and cervical cancer. A second area of concentration within this sub-theme is sexual health, which will address healthy sexual behavior (including diverse expressions of sexuality and the positive dimensions and benefits of sexual activity) as well as the health risks posed by sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies. For example, members of the McGill faculty have been conducting pioneering research on both the biomedical and social aspects of HIV/AIDS in areas as different and diverse as Montréal, Malawi, Kenya, Botswana, and China. This sub-theme will help facilitate the interaction of researchers around the issues of gender. Finally, although this topic is not currently an area of active research at McGill, the Institute would be uniquely positioned to develop and foster research on transgender health issues.

Environmental and Health Interactions Over the Lifecourse: Humans are influenced by and influence their environments, where environments include prenatal, family, culture, social, political, economic, geographical, and climate environments, each plays a direct and indirect role in how both males, females, and intersex people develop, grow, transform, find identity, learn roles, understand themselves and their worlds, find meaning and purpose, respond to illness, threat, and trauma throughout their lifecourse. These understandings have a direct bearing on health, health behaviors, responses to treatment, access to and provision of health care services, as well as in the identification, definition, treatment, and regulation of health issues. Examination of these complex interactions requires both quantitative and qualitative approaches. This sub-theme will specifically address the issue of how differences in response are products of how a person's genotype develops into the phenotype through selection and interaction with environments, and how the mechanisms of nature via nurture changes through the lifecourse.

Critical Approaches to Biomedicine and its Institutions: Scholarly research into the cultural, technological, and institutional determinants of medical knowledge and practices has been pursued at the Department of Social Studies of Medicine (SSOM) since its inception in 1975. Its multidisciplinary mesh of anthropologists, historians, and doctors, have conducted research on biomedicine in several countries, including on gynecologists in France, on the pharmaceuticalization of women’s sexuality in the US, and contrasting approaches to menopause in Japan and Canada. The Institute aims to further build SSOM’s line of research by focusing on the gendered elements of these determinants, drawing in other researchers from the School of Nursing, Epidemiology, Sociology, Psychology, and Political Science. Researchers in this area will explore topics such as the treatment of anxiety and depression in men and women, the “creation” or “recognition” of new diseases such as anorexia, building gendered institutional spaces, the implications of polypharmacy in hospitalized elderly women, gendered doctor/patient interactions and exchanges, the construction of biomedical ethics in the realm of reproductive technologies, and biomedical approaches to intersex infants. Other research may examine how governance and the enforcement of legislation may impact the health and wellness of individuals in a highly gendered manner. For example, the inability of governments to effectively regulate the control of reproductive technologies such as ultrasound has led the continued practice of selectively aborting female fetuses in parts of South and East Asia.

Faculty who have confirmed interest in joining this axis:

Annmarie Adams (Architecture)
Shari Brotman (Social Work)
Angela Campbell (Law)
Franco Carnevale (School of Nursing)
Shelley Clark (Sociology)
Dr. Hélène Ezer
Nancy Feeley (School of Nursing)
Jennifer Fishman (Medical Ethics, Social Studies of Medicine)
Jennifer Fosket (Sociology)
Laurie Gottlieb (School of Nursing)
Barbara Hales (Pharmacology and Therapeutics)
Sandra Hyde (Anthropology)
Rebekah Lewis (PhD student, Sociology)
Margaret Lock (Anthropology, Social Studies of Medicine)
Margaret Purden (School of Nursing)
Sonia Semenic (School of Nursing)
Nathan Grant Smith (Educational and Counselling Psychology (ECP)
Eran Shor (Sociology)
Erin Strumpf (Economics, Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Occupational Health)
Andrea Tone (History and Social Studies of Medicine)
Amélie Quesnel-Vallée (Sociology and Epidemiology)