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UTSC PhD student exploring treatment responses for major depressive disorder

Tara Gralnick, a PhD student in UTSC’s Department of Psychological Clinical Science, received a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship to explore factors affecting treatment responses for major depressive disorder. (Photo by Ken Jones)

Tara Gralnick has always been fascinated by mental health research with direct clinical applications.

She’ll be able to take one step closer in turning that fascination into reality thanks to a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship.

Gralnick, a PhD student in UTSC’s Department of Psychological Clinical Science, is one of 22 graduate students from U of T to have received a Vanier Scholarship. The prestigious scholarships – which are valued at $50,000 each per year for up to three years – recognizes graduate students across Canada for their leadership, academic excellence and research potential.

Gralnick’s research will explore how two broad constructs – personality and cognitions – influence sustained treatment outcomes for patients with major depressive disorder (MDD).

“Successful treatments for depression exist but there are many who don’t respond to those treatments and even more who experience a recurrence of symptoms following treatment,” says Gralnick. 

MDD is a growing public health concern that affects about 3.2 million Canadians. It can result in significant personal and functional difficulties in those afflicted. Individuals suffering from the disorder often experience low mood and a reduced sense of pleasure in activities they once enjoyed.

“It can be very difficult for individuals with MDD to feel motivated to actively engage in their everyday lives,” adds Gralnick.

Personality and cognitions are often directly or indirectly targeted in treatments for MDD, notes Gralnick, but exploring how changes in personality and cognitions simultaneously affect long-term outcomes to different treatments has yet to be evaluated. The hope is to eventually help clinicians develop more powerful and precise interventions that target factors contributing to a recurrence of depression in patients.

Gralnick has always been passionate about helping others and has always sought opportunities to work directly with people.

As an undergraduate she worked in providing therapy for children on the autism spectrum to develop skills in language and help them enhance their daily functioning. She also volunteered teaching English to Tibetan refugees and Buddhist monks in Dharamsala, India.

She is currently doing her practicum placement at the Psychological Trauma Program at the Centre for Mental Health and Addiction (CAMH) where she provides therapy to those who have suffered workplace accident with the aim of helping them get back to work. 

Her ultimate goal is to become a practicing psychologist that does research, and for that research to inform her practice.

“What I love about clinical psychology is that it stirs both compassion and curiosity,” she says. “I think it’s given me a great sense of purpose.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough