Why we need to do a better job of serving children who are neurodiverse

Centre Director Charlotte Waddell gave a Zoom talk to close to 300 parents, practitioners and policy makers on Dec. 2. The talk was titled, “Neurodiversity and mental health: Serving children better.”

The presentation covered the following themes:

  • The need to create communities where all children are welcomed and celebrated, and where services are delivered according to needs so that all children can flourish and meet their potential.
  • The prevalence of anxiety, ADHD, behaviour disorders and depression, which are higher for children experiencing three particular forms of neurodiversity (autism spectrum disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome disorder and intellectual disability).
  • The research evidence for effective treatments for these four conditions for children with the three forms of neurodiversity.
  • The effective treatments for other common childhood mental disorders that can also be offered, with adaptations when needed

“We need to ensure that timely and effective treatments are offered to all children, particularly if they are neurodiverse, given higher prevalence rates,” Waddell told the group.

The talk ended with celebrating people who are neurodiverse, and the communities that support them over the lifespan.

Waddell then stayed on the Zoom call to respond to questions and comments. She also joined a small breakout group discussion to learn more about parent’s perspectives.


What protects children or puts them at risk of bullying?

Researchers have examined risk factors for both engaging in bullying and being bullied. One particularly robust meta-analysis incorporated 153 studies that included children from kindergarten to Grade 12. Researchers began by classifying children’s experiences with bullying into three categories: perpetrator only, victim only, and both perpetrator and victim. Some of the risk factors for being involved in bullying include:

  • Living in communities experiencing challenges (e.g.: high crime rates)
  • Having academic challenges
  • Having lower status among peers
  • Having peers who encourage negative behaviour
  • Having a negative view of oneself

In terms of identifying what can protect children from both bullying others and being bullied, the news is less encouraging. A meta-analysis that included 19 studies of youth aged 11 to 18 years identified only one protective factor: older age reduced the risk of perpetrating bullying.  For more information, see Vol. 15, No. 4 of the Children’s Mental Health Research Quarterly.

Nov. 20 is Universal Children’s Day

The United Nations’ Universal Children’s Day, which was established in 1954, is celebrated on November 20 each year to promote international togetherness and awareness among children worldwide. UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, promotes and coordinates this special day, which also works towards improving children’s welfare.

Universal Children’s Day is not just a day to celebrate children for who they are, but to bring awareness to children around the globe who have experienced violence in forms of abuse, exploitation, and discrimination.

But in a report by the Children’s Health Policy Centre, published last year in the journal Evidence-Based Mental Health, estimated that one in eight children has mental disorders at any given time, causing symptoms and impairment, therefore requiring treatment. Yet even in high-income countries, most children with mental disorders are not receiving services for these conditions. The report discusses the implications for this situation, particularly the need to substantially increase public investments in effective interventions. It also discusses the policy urgency, given the emerging increases in childhood mental health problems since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Readers can get access to the report, here.

Nurse-Family Partnership findings featured in podcast

Findings from the Children’s Health Policy Centre’s scientific evaluation of the Nurse-Family Partnership program are the subject of a recent podcast recorded with SFU assistant professor Nicole Catherine, co-principal investigator for the randomized-controlled trial.

The podcast was recorded by the Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health (ACAMH), the organization for the journal that published the main child findings in July 2023.

“I relished the chance to be able to speak about these important findings,” Catherine said. “I’m committed to ensuring that the voices of these young families, as told through their research data, are heard and amplified,” she added.

The podcast recording can be found here.

Bullying happens in Canada and BC

Data reveals important information about Canadian children’s experiences with bullying. A study of 1,000 youth ages 10 to 17 found more than 26% reported being bullied at least once in the past month, with most reporting both in-person and online experiences. And among BC students aged 12 to 19 years, 53% reported experiencing at least one of three forms of bullying in the past year. This included 39% having been socially excluded on purpose, 38% being teased to the point of feeling bad or extremely uncomfortable, and 8% being physically bullied. As well, 4% of students reported missing school due to bullying in the past month.

Many of the same bullying experiences were documented among Métis students in BC. Specifically, 41% were socially excluded on purpose, 47% were teased to the point of feeling bad or extremely uncomfortable, and 13% were physically bullied. For more information, see Vol. 15, No. 4 of the Children’s Mental Health Research Quarterly.

Experiences of bullying are relatively common

A recent meta-analysis of 80 studies involving youth ages 12 to 18 found that just over 34% reported perpetrating in-person bullying and just over 15% reported perpetrating cyberbullying. While rates of in-person bullying were slightly more than double those of cyberbullying, the two types were strongly correlated, leading the study’s authors to conclude that in-person bullying and cyberbullying were in essence just different ways of enacting similar behaviours. For more information, see Vol. 15, No. 4 of the Children’s Mental Health Research Quarterly.

Two new studies on Covid-19 published by CHPC scholar

A new study on the Covid-19 pandemic by SFU Assistant Professor and CHPC team member Kim Thomson, has just been published in Plos One.

The study found that parents with children at home reported nearly double pre-pandemic population estimates of moderate to severe psychological distress.

Psychological distress was more frequently reported among parents with pre-existing mental health conditions, disabilities and financial stressors. As well, parents with greater psychological distress reported an increase in negative interactions with their children as a result of the pandemic, and perceived higher anxiety in their children.

“These results highlight that meaningful responses to promote mental health among parents and families must address social and structural inequalities,” the report concluded.

In the same timeframe, Thomson was also co-author of another paper on the Covid-19 pandemic, this one published in the Journal of Adolescence. It profiled the social connectedness among early adolescents in Grade 7 before the pandemic was declared (Winter 2020) and in Grade 8 during the second wave of the pandemic (Winter 2021).

The paper concluded that connectedness with peers and adults in Grade 7 was significantly related to higher levels of mental wellbeing in Grade 8 even during the Covid-19 pandemic, highlighting the protective role of social connection.




NFP put on the agenda for Interior Health nurses

Charlotte Waddell, Centre Director, joined BC Ministry of Health lead partners for the Sept. 26 Annual Education Meeting held online for approximately 10 public health nurses with BC’s Interior Health Authority.

The focus was Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP) and a review of the main findings from the 10-year randomized controlled trial that the Centre has led. This trial has evaluated NFP in Canada for the first time. Nicole Catherine and Harriet MacMillan are co-leads with Waddell.

The study has shown that NFP reduces prenatal substance exposure and improves child language and mental health by age two years. All three outcomes are crucial for early healthy development.

Waddell also spoke about the high number of Indigenous participants and about ongoing work with Indigenous collaborators to tell the stories of these participants. As well, she noted long-term follow-up plans: “In the US and England, NFP led to enduring benefits in middle school and beyond, so we are also committed to learning how well NFP works to help children longer-term in BC.”

Child and youth mental health practitioners and policymakers urged to address service gaps

Charlotte Waddell, Centre Director, gave a Sept. 14 talk with the Doctors of BC, Community of Practice on Child and Youth Mental Health. The talk was titled, “Children’s mental health: Research for informing practice and policy.”

Waddell covered crucial messages including the high prevalence of childhood mental disorders and the severe service shortages — with fewer than half of children with these disorders getting any kind of help.

For this talk, which took place in Vancouver with an audience of approximately 100 family physicians, child and youth psychiatrists and policymakers, among others, she urged strong advocacy — to not only address the service gaps, but also ensure that BC invests in effective prevention programs to reduce needs in the population. Waddell noted: “Your advocacy can and will be very powerful in making a difference for children.”

Bullying can lead to long-term mental health problems

What counts as bullying? Most definitions of bullying agree that it involves aggression both intentional and repetitive, occurring in situations where there is a power imbalance between individuals. This definition recognizes that bullying can take various forms, including physical, verbal and social. This definition also acknowledges that proximity can vary, from bullying in person to bullying online.

Regardless of definition, there is no question about the seriousness of childhood bullying, since bullying has led to children dying by suicide. Even if the consequences are not as dire, being victimized in childhood has been causally linked with subsequent mental health problems, including anxiety, depression and suicidality. As well, longitudinal studies have demonstrated continuing mental health challenges for victims of childhood bullying into middle age. As a result, there is a collective ethical imperative to understand and stop childhood bullying. For more information, see Vol. 15, No. 4 of the Children’s Mental Health Research Quarterly.