ACT's 12th Annual Focus on Research Conference

Elizabeth Hartney presents at ACT's 12th Annual Focus on Research Conference

Elizabeth Hartney presents at ACT's 12th Annual Focus on Research Conference

Dr Elizabeth Hartney represented the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at the 12th Annual Focus on Research Conference Hosted by Autism Community Training, which was held at Simon Fraser University, Downtown Vancouver Campus on 15th and 16th April 2016. 

Dr Hartney's presentation introduced a new direction in family centred services in BC. Originating from Healthy Minds, Healthy People: A Ten Year Plan to Address Mental Health and Substance Use in British Columbia, this collaborative, multi-partner, government-led initiative establishes a family-centred philosophy for British Columbia. Families at the Centre draws upon research evidence, grey literature, experience in BC and other jurisdictions, and input from policy makers, service providers, and families with lived experience. Dr Hartney was a key contributor to the development of Families at the Centre during the past five years as the Resident Psychologist at the BC Ministry of Health, and continues to serve on the Families at the Centre Advisory Committee, representing Royal Roads University as a key academic partner.

When any member of a family is affected by a mental health and/or substance use problem, other family members can be affected. For example, having a child with ASD increases the risk of anxiety and depression in parents (Baker et al, 2011; Ingersoll, 2011), and children of depressed parents can face a roughly 50 per cent risk of developing a depressive disorder before age 20 (Beardslee et al., 1988). Approximately 70% of children with ASD meet criteria for at least one additional psychiatric disorder (Simonoff et al, 2008). Similarly, problematic behavior in children with ASD predicts increased substance use in parents (Wade et al, 2014), and substance use in parents predicts greater risk for substance use in adolescents (Yule et al, 2013) and other mental health and health problems (Francis, 2011). Despite increased social support being known to reduce these risks, contact with the system often increases stress for families (Brookman-Frazee et al, 2012).

Public systems typically focus on the needs of the individual without considering family needs or the supportive role they play. Consequently, the health, well-being, and functioning of the individual and the whole family may be compromised. This potentially undermines the effectiveness of care and treatment, and can increase the risk of mental health and substance use problems for other family members.

Families at the Centre defines a family-centred approach to working with families, with the intention of improving outcomes for individuals and families. Expanding on the Ministry of Health’s patient-centred orientation, it is designed for cross-system applicability, including ministries, health authorities, school boards, local governments, publicly funded for-profit and non-profit organizations, community-based services, consumer organizations,  and professionals.


  • Viewing individuals in the context of their families and communities.
  • Acknowledging the role of families in building and sustaining resilience, and in providing care.
  • Creating supportive environments that promote mental well-being and reduce the risk for problems at every stage of life.
  • Recognizing families as experts on their own needs and partners in decision-making and planning.
  • Involving families in planning, policy development, service delivery and evaluation to the greatest extent possible, and supporting families in contributing to the health, safety, and well-being of the individual and the family as a whole.

Dr Hartney's presentation described the family-centred service orientation proposed in Families at the Centre, and presented the spectrum of family engagement, enabling delegates to determine their own current and potential level of engagement with the families they serve. Tools for delegates to evaluate and develop family-centred services and practices were provided. 


  • In family-centred systems, families and individual family members are recognized as influencers, co-providers, and co-creators of services, and decision makers in their own care.
  • Families at the Centre proposes a family-centred approach to increase understanding in systems about the needs of families experiencing ASD and other mental health challenges.
  • Systems and services can move towards becoming more family-centred by understanding the spectrum of family engagement and taking steps to improve partnerships with families.


  • Participants will recognize the benefits of a family-centred approach, on the individual, the family, and on the health and child-serving systems.
  • Participants will become familiar with the risks to individuals and families associated with disregarding family needs and supportive roles in service provision.
  • Participants will become familiar with the spectrum of family engagement, and how they can improve partnerships with families.