Brock-led team awarded $294,000 by SickKids, CIHR to study impact of COVID on youth mental health

Adolescence is a period of substantial psychological and social development that often sets the stage for the rest of a person’s life, says Karen Patte, Assistant Professor of Health Sciences at Brock University.

But little is known about how lockdowns and related pandemic measures have, and will, impact adolescent health and development.

To find answers, Patte is heading up a national team of researchers to study the mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on youth over time.

The team was awarded $294,127 from the New Investigator Research Grant Program, a joint initiative supported by SickKids Hospital and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

“The impact of the pandemic on youth mental health is a global concern, especially since many mental illnesses and mental health problems have their onset in adolescence,” says Patte.

“During adolescence, peer relationships become increasingly important, and youth have faced drastic reductions in face-to-face social interactions with physical distancing measures,” she says. “They’re also not able to participate in many of the behaviours that help regulate emotions and promote healthy development, including various extracurricular activities.”

Patte and her team are examining how youth are impacted by school closures, school reopening protocols and other pandemic measures; if and what disproportionate impacts are experienced by socially disadvantaged and marginalized populations; and the ‘protective factors’ — such as strong supports at home, virtual connection with friends and getting some physical activity outdoors — that mitigate potential harms.

Team members from Brock include Assistant Professor of Health Sciences Valerie Michaelson, Professor of Health Sciences Terrance Wade and Associate Professor of Health Sciences William Pickett, as well as researchers from B.C., Quebec and other areas in Ontario.

The group will take a “mixed methods” approach to the research, says Patte. They plan to examine youth survey data collected before and in the early days of the lockdown, and over the current and upcoming school years.

“We’ll also conduct virtual interviews to capture the nuances of youth pandemic experiences,” she says. “Youth will be engaged as partners, as research informs practices that impact them, to ensure the diverse and complex experiences of young people are appropriately reflected.”

Patte’s previous research involves working with a national initiative called the COMPASS study, which started in 2012. With CIHR and Health Canada funding, each year the study collects health information from about 65,000 grade 9 to 12 students attending more than 125 secondary schools in Alberta, B.C., Ontario and Quebec. Patte is the Mental Health lead of the COMPASS study.

She says the COMPASS study provides a rich background of pre-pandemic information that researchers gathered onsite at high schools.

In May and June of this year, the team shifted to collect information virtually from more than 9,600 youth primarily in Quebec and Ontario, many of whom were at home because of school closures.

“We’re in a unique position to have this pre- and early pandemic data on so many youth and to be able to follow them over time; we’re the only ones that I know of that have such long-running data on a national adolescent sample of this size,” says Patte.

The team will be examining the mental health impact over time by comparing students’ past information with what was gathered in the spring, and over the current and next school years.

They will explore whether changes to mental health are based on factors such as students’ pre-pandemic mental health status, use of positive and negative coping mechanisms, changes in health behaviours, peer relationships and family environments, as well as differences in pandemic measures across various jurisdictions and schools.

“What we need to know is how have the youth changed from before, are certain populations at greater risk of adverse impacts and is that effect sustained?” says Patte.

She says the team’s research findings will help shape school policies and practices on how to best protect youth during a pandemic. “We experienced the widest reaching and longest school closures to date, followed by various models of school reopening and returns, but lack policy-relevant data to guide protocols,” says Patte.

“This funding by CIHR and SickKids in Dr. Patte and her team’s research shows how important it is to fully understand the impact this pandemic has had on our youth,” says Vice-President, Research Tim Kenyon.

“We’re investing in the future by ensuring that today’s adolescents are healthy, happy and strong. We need to take the appropriate measures to address the pandemic’s negative impacts on our youth; this research will help direct our efforts,” he says.

New Investigator Research Grants “enable early-career researchers to make a meaningful contribution to the fight for children’s health,” says the program’s website.

They are jointly sponsored by SickKids Foundation and CIHR’s Institute of Human Development, Child and Youth Health. Grant recipients may obtain up to three years of support for research in the biomedical, clinical, health systems and services, population and public health sectors.

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