Roughly 1.2 million children and youth in Canada experience mental health challenges, from anxiety and depression to eating disorders and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
About 70 per cent of illnesses like this arise before adulthood, impacting young people during critical developmental years and increasing the risk of difficulties later in life.
Although school is one of the places where children learn how to make sense of the world, the education system can be a difficult environment to navigate, especially for those who are already facing obstacles—a concern amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Carleton University psychology researcher Maria Rogers brings together two important areas of study for children and youth—mental health and education—to improve our understanding of how they interact. Education is one of the primary social determinants of health, and her ultimate goal is to help nurture success at school and beyond.
“The individual and societal costs of mental health problems in childhood are substantial and well-known,” says Rogers, a Canada Research Chair in Child and Youth Mental Health and Well-Being. “We know far less, however, about how mental health difficulties in childhood impact children’s learning and experiences at school.
“By deepening our knowledge about child and youth mental health and its associated educational impacts, we can fundamentally divert negative trajectories and reduce the suffering of some of our most vulnerable citizens.”
Mental Health Fallout from COVID-19
In addition to her research, Rogers is a practicing clinical psychologist. The insight she gains from that job informs her research, and vice versa.
In her practice, Rogers specializes in supporting Indigenous children and youth in their school and learning endeavours. A member of the NuntatuKavut community of southern Labrador, Rogers works with families and educators, both on reserve and in the Ottawa-Gatineau area, bringing a culturally sensitive approach to her sessions with young clients.
One of the biggest issues that Rogers and other youth mental health professionals are contending with these days is the fallout from the pandemic.
“All children in Canada have been dramatically affected by it, but children and youth with pre-existing mental health conditions and neurodevelopmental disabilities have been disproportionately impacted,” she says.
With support from the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR), her research team is following a large, “nationally-representative sample of children and families affected by ADHD in order to understand the impact of the pandemic on this population and its ripple effects over the coming years.”
Key Relationships for Healthy Development
Children with mental health challenges and neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD— the second-most frequent diagnosis in childhood after anxiety—are at a higher risk for academic underachievement as well as poor engagement and poor participation in school.
Rogers’ research examines the relationships at the centre of children’s lives— teacher-student, parent-child and even teacher-parent relationships—to help develop solutions to encourage more supportive and nurturing relationships for at-risk children.
“Despite these kids having average intellectual abilities, they experience more mental health difficulties, more family relationship problems and far greater educational underachievement compared to their neurotypical peers,” she says. “I’m particularly interested in parents and teachers and how they can foster healthy development in that population of kids.”
The family or home environment is an important aspect of Rogers’ work in part because of the role it plays in absenteeism.
“School attendance problems have come into a new light recently—more children are missing school than ever before,” she says. “We hope to find ways to improve family well-being in order to promote school attendance among children and youth who are chronically absent.”