Health Sciences’ first Indigenous PhD graduate wins grant to shape COVID-19 plan for Vancouver’s urban Indigenous
By Geron Malbas
Fearlessly passionate about Indigenous health, Brittany Bingham not only successfully defended her PhD last month, but was also awarded a Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (MSFHR) grant to help inform the COVID-19 response for Vancouver’s urban Indigenous population.
Bingham, who is of mixed ancestry, is a member of the Shíshálh Nation in Sechelt, B.C. She is the principal investigator on a project entitled Informing The COVID-19 Response For Vancouver’s Urban Indigenous Population Using Community-Driven Methods And Big Data Analytics. She emphasizes that the unique needs and diversity of Indigenous communities are essential to consider when informing the COVID-19 response for Indigenous peoples.
“We need to work with the Indigenous experts in the community to inform our use of data that will help us mitigate COVID-19 risk in these populations, creating responses that are led by and for Indigenous peoples,” she says.
“Many Indigenous people face barriers in accessing health services both in urban and more remote areas. We need to examine how to break down some of these barriers within the context of COVID-19, and consider the broader health inequities that will have an impact during this pandemic. The most marginalized populations in Vancouver are also disproportionately Indigenous, so it is essential that we consider innovative and Indigenous-led approaches to support these groups in staying safe during COVID-19.”
Bingham began her health research journey at SFU, completing a BA (Hons.) degree in psychology with the goal of becoming a clinical psychologist and then working in Indigenous communities. She explored broader ideas of health and wellness after taking classes in health psychology and health inequities, leading to a deeper understanding of how Indigenous people see wellness in a holistic manner, and how mental wellness cannot be considered in isolation from other aspects of health.
“As I completed my honours thesis working with an Indigenous alcohol and drug treatment centre in B.C., I learned that their programs didn’t just focus on substance use but also on addressing historical trauma for their clients as well,” she explains. “This was when I started to more fully understand the role that trauma plays in health equity.”
For her dissertation research topic, “Indigenous and Gender Informed Approaches to Understanding Health, Social, and Mental Wellness Among Indigenous People Experiencing Homelessness and Mental Illness in Two Canadian Cities”, she worked in health sciences professor Julian Somers' lab. She examined data for Indigenous people from the At Home Study, then engaged with community members. To encourage rich, emotional and powerful dialogue, she used Indigenous, culturally driven methods.
While working on her PhD, she also worked at both Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), conducting research on cultural safety and primary care, and with the Centre for Gender and Sexual Health Equity (CGSHE) on Indigenous women’s health research projects. On top of her busy work schedule, she was also raising two children. For Bingham, balancing her work, PhD, and family was an immense challenge and she is grateful to have had constant support.
“Taking the time over the years to work on other community-based projects with Indigenous communities provided me with invaluable experiences and perspectives that ultimately informed my PhD work.”
Bingham has just been appointed to an inaugural joint position as director of Indigenous research at both CGSHE and VCH Aboriginal Health.
As FHS’s first Indigenous PhD graduate, Bingham hopes her future research and work contribute to decolonizing health research by filling some of the large glaring gaps in data that is by and for Indigenous peoples and used to inform system-wide transformational change. She hopes to centre all of her work around the importance of elevating Indigenous community voices in research and keeping these perspectives central to findings and interpretations.