Brock students using social media to share results of youth mental research

Students Salony Sharma and Egan Henderson (BSc ’21) are doing something that’s becoming increasingly vital in research: putting findings into the hands of those who could use the information the most.

Sharma, a Niagara Falls high school student and Henderson, who recently graduated from Brock, are part of a research committee working with Assistant Professor of Health Sciences Karen Patte and her research team. The two are reaching out to young people to share the results of youth mental health studies conducted by the team.

The weekly posts that Sharma, Henderson and their colleagues put out on the COMPASS study Instagram account are a vivid example of knowledge mobilization, which Henderson describes as a way to get research out to those who would benefit from the insights and information, in this case, youth.

“It’s also understanding how they consume content,” says Henderson (BSc ’21) who starts his master’s studies next month. “I can model the content we’re creating after what I would enjoy looking at in order to hopefully make it appealing and accessible to other youth.”

Sharma says she was surprised by “how many places mental health factors into your life.”

“We’re getting students to understand that mental health is not just a small component; it really is part of all aspects of your life,” she says.

Sharma and Henderson are members of the COMPASS Youth Knowledge Mobilization Leaders committee.

The COMPASS study is a national initiative headquartered at the University of Waterloo. Since its inception in 2012, COMPASS researchers have been collecting health information from about 65,000 Grade 9 to 12 students attending more than 125 secondary schools in Ontario, Alberta, Quebec, and B.C.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and Health Canada are funding the research.

Patte leads the Mental Health section of the COMPASS study. For the past four years, the researchers have been investigating how mental health relates to students’ substance use, physical activity, screen time, sleep, eating behaviour, bullying, academic achievement and the other areas addressed in the larger project.

More recently, Patte and her team were awarded a Sick Kids Foundation and Canadian Institutes of Health Research New Investigator Grant to leverage COMPASS data to evaluate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures on youth mental health. That team formed an additional Youth Ambassador Committee to inform that study, comprising 10 secondary school students across four provinces.

“The COMPASS study was designed to be a learning system with the goal to advance youth health by informing more effective preventative practice and policy,” says Patte. “As such, we’ve always been big on making sure that we give back with our data and effectively communicate results not just to other researchers but by engaging schools, community partners, public health, community organizations, and policy makers.”

But the research team realized “we weren’t reaching a key group who could benefit from results — youth themselves,” she says, “and who knows better how to engage youth than youth?”

Last year, Patte and her colleague Emily Belita, Assistant Professor at McMaster University, and COMPASS Project Manager Alexandra Butler worked with Brock’s Lifespan Development Research Institute Knowledge Mobilization Officer Jayne Morrish to invite Brock Youth Engagement Committee members to form the COMPASS Youth Knowledge Mobilization Leaders committee. Sharma and Henderson were among those who responded.

“The youth were very excited about the COMPASS study,” says Morrish. “I think all of us saw that it was a really special moment.

“We adults could make up a really beautiful infographic if we wanted to, but that might not be how and why youth want to engage with information and research knowledge,” she says. “That’s why it’s important to have youth at the table with an active voice and that’s where knowledge mobilization gets fun, exciting and really accurate.”

Since the beginning of this year, the five-member youth committee has been meeting regularly to learn more about the COMPASS study’s findings and strategize ways of sharing results that are engaging for youth.

“Every aspect of this youth-targeted knowledge mobilization strategy was developed by these youth leaders in a remarkably detailed and strategic manner, from content and design to effective delivery times,” Patte explains.

“When the team started, we had so many topics to choose from,” says Sharma. “We found really surprising aspects of mental health that we didn’t know. Being a student myself, I had that experience of saying, my peers would really like to know about this because I would really like to know more about this.”

Individual committee members create posts on certain topics and bring that material to the entire committee for approval. After that, the content — which can consist of images, videos, stories, among others — is posted to the Instagram account.

The materials explore how mental health is connected to, or influences, sleep, body image, physical activities, screen time and attitudes. The committee has also looked at how COVID-19 protocols have impacted youth mental health.

Patte has noticed that the youth engagement work has re-energized the team and impacted the way she approaches all aspects of her research within COMPASS and other studies.

“Engaging youth, or the other populations of interest in particular studies, ensures that our research is impactful by better capturing and reflecting their experiences and needs,” she says.

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