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Leah Steele

Medicine grad hopes her research will make mental health services more accessible to low-income earners

After earning a medical degree and completing a residency in family medicine, Dr. Leah Steele had every reason to relax and enjoy the fruits of her labours. But “cruise control” is not a setting she knows.

She was inspired to investigate the mental health-care needs of Toronto’s lowest-income residents during her residency at St. Michael’s Hospital in downtown Toronto. “I decided to make the accessibility of mental-health services the focus of my work,” says Dr. Steele, who earned a PhD from U of T in 2003 in health-policy management and evaluation and now holds a post-doctoral fellowship in the health systems research and consulting unit at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. At the same time, she works part-time in a family practice at St. Michael’s Hospital.

Dr. Steele’s research has uncovered significant differences in the use of mental-health services across the socio-economic spectrum. People in the wealthiest Toronto neighbourhoods see psychiatrists three times more often than people in the poorest communities, even though low-income earners experience a much higher rate of mental illness.

She speculates that educated patients may be more likely to ask their doctors for referrals and that poor language skills may act as a barrier for some recent immigrants. She hopes her research leads to a more equitable provision of mental health care throughout the system.

Dr. Steele envisions her future as a continuous learning process. Even a chosen form of relaxation – an upcoming scuba-diving holiday – has the word “go-getter” written all over it. “This need to overachieve is a chronic illness I’ve had since my early school days,” she sighs. “I’m trying to get rid of it.”

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