Recently named an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences, Thomson started her academic career by earning an undergrad degree in psychology from Queens University. Thinking initially what she’d become a counsellor, she did her Master’s degree in educational and counselling psychology at the University of BC.
“But I ended up pivoting away from a purely clinical perspective when I started working with a team looking at children’s health from a population level,” Thomson recalls. She then joined the Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP) team at UBC, becoming a research coordinator supporting the pilot of a population-based survey of child wellbeing.
Shortly after that, she began her PhD in population and public health. Her dissertation focused on finding early indicators of children’s social and emotional development at the time they entered school. Her objective? To see how these indicators related to the children’s future mental health and well-being, using both public health administrative data and also children’s self-reports.
“One of the main takeaways was that more than 40% of children entering the school system were showing up with relative social-emotional vulnerabilities,” she said, citing higher than average scores for issues such as anxiety or hyperactivity.
Following graduation, Thomson did a post-doc in Melbourne, Australia, where she worked at Deakin University with a group studying the social factors and conditions that predict child and youth mental health. There, she was helping to investigate one of the earliest origins of childhood mental health challenges – among the parent’s generation. “We suspect there are multiple pathways between generations,” she says. “It can be genetic, but it can also be psychological and social.”
But, caught in the crosshairs of the Covid pandemic, Thomson returned to Canada earlier than expected, in 2020. She transferred back to HELP and began looking at mental health outcomes among subgroups that might have experienced inequities, including children who came to Canada as immigrants or refugees. She also studied the impacts of the pandemic on child and youth mental health, including working with the Canadian Mental Health Association, the BC Ministry of Education and the BC Teachers’ Federation.
Most recently, she worked at the BC Centre for Disease Control as an evaluation specialist with the population and public health team. “This was a great opportunity to apply my skills in evaluating programs and initiatives that are trying to address underlying social factors — such as food insecurity — that influence population health,” she said.
But when an opportunity arose with the Children’s Health Policy Centre, Thomson leapt at the chance. “I’ve always been interested in the intersection between research and policy and practice,” she says. “What drew me to the CHPC was the alignment of our goals. I’m especially interested in opportunities to intervene earlier when interventions are more likely to be effective.”
Right now, she’s developing her research and teaching portfolios and making plans for grant applications. She’s also going to be joining Charlotte Waddell and Nicole Catherine on SFU’s developmental trajectories research challenge team, for the Faculty of Health Sciences.
“I think we share the same goals,” she says. “Our focus is on improving well-being for all children and doing it through policy.”
Findings from the Children’s Health Policy Centre’s scientific evaluation of the program Nurse-Family Partnership have shown that it improved maternal-reported child language and mental health (problem behaviour) at age two years.
Known as the BC Healthy Connections Project, or BCHCP, the study published its findings today in a paper in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
“We are thrilled to have these significant positive findings,” said Nicole Catherine, co-principal investigator for the BCHCP randomized-controlled trial. “We have shown that intervening very early in a child’s life —during pregnancy—can have enduring benefits.”
Co-principal investigator Charlotte Waddell added that the study represents millions of dollars and thousands of hours of work by hundreds of people over 13 years. “Our findings show the power of policy-practice-research collaboration in the service of common goals,” she said. “It’s the ideal way to address tough questions of public health importance.” The Children’s Health Policy Centre (CHPC) at Simon Fraser University led the trial, in collaboration with McMaster University and other organizations.
The study, which started in 2013, enrolled 739 pregnant girls and young women and their 737 children across the four participating regional Health Authorities (Fraser, Interior, Island and Vancouver Coastal Health. Northern Health was involved in an NFP nursing pilot and process evaluation).
Some 200 Indigenous (including First Nations, Métis or Inuit) girls and young women, or 27%, generously agreed to participate in this long-term trial. Some 237 BCHCP children, or 32%, had an Indigenous mother or father.
The study was funded by the BC Ministry of Health, with support from the BC Ministries of Children and Family Development and Mental Health and Addictions. Participating regional health authorities funded direct nursing costs. The Mowafaghian and Stern Foundations provided addition generous supports.
Nurse-Family Partnership aims to improve the lives of children born to young, first-time mothers. Developed nearly 45 years ago by researcher David Olds and colleagues in the United States, the program starts early — in pregnancy, before children are even born. It involves intensive home visits by public health nurses continuing until children reach their second birthday. The program focuses on those who are coping with socioeconomic inequities.
Public health nurses provide the home visits — up to 64 in total over two-and-a-half years. Nurses delivering the program received extensive education. As well, they received resources to use in the visits, and ongoing supervision and support. “We acknowledge the participating young moms and children who shared their experiences via data collected during 4,000 research interviews,” co-principal investigator Catherine said. “They told us that they wanted to help make a difference for other young families like them.”
An earlier finding, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal Open, had shown that NFP led to reduced prenatal cannabis use, and in smokers led to modest reductions in cigarette use. Further results will be published in the next year, for example, on NFP’s impact on reducing intimate-partner violence.
“All the findings show that longer term follow-up of our NFP cohort of children is warranted given that further benefits may emerge across childhood and adolescence,” Catherine said adding that the team is identifying new funding to follow the children over 10 years and beyond. “This kind of long-term follow-up is the best way to show the return on public investment in early childhood programs designed to prevent problems from occurring in the first place.”
Full text of the JCPP paper is available here.
Canada needs to substantially increase public investments in effective interventions to improve the mental health of children.
That was one of the key messages from a June 19/23 talk by Christine Schwartz, psychologist, SFU adjunct professor and Children’s Health Policy Centre scientific writer.
She was speaking to policy-makers, practitioners and researchers at a talk sponsored by the Children’s Healthcare Canada network.
The 30-minute Zoom presentation, followed by a Q&A session, was part of the SPARK program, designed to showcase knowledge, evidence and expertise to spark conversations, ideas and action.
“Effective collaborations between researchers and policy-makers can play a tremendous role in advancing the wellbeing of children,” Schwartz told the group. Audience members were especially interested in learning how CHPC team members have been able to conduct research that is both academically rigorous and responsive to the needs of policy-makers.
Go here to see a recording of the presentation.
Children’s Health Policy Centre Associate Director Nicole Catherine has just been named an affiliate faulty member of The Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP) at the University of British Columbia.
Catherine also holds the Canada Research Chair Tier 2 in Child Health Equity and Policy and is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University.
“I am thrilled to join HELP as an affiliate faculty member,” she said in the announcement of the honour.
In an April 27 talk to faculty, staff and trainees at HELP, Catherine said that early prevention of childhood adversities through research-policy-practitioner collaborations is one of her major motivators.
As the former scientific director of a public health randomized controlled trial known as the BC Healthy Connections Project, she told the group: “Our plans to examine the longer-term effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of an early intervention, across adolescence, will directly inform policymakers, those who need to act to help children flourish.”
Audience members said the retention protocol — developed prior to data collection — impressed them because it ensured sustained engagement with 739 unserved families across 2.5 years. Catherine said: “Families that are unfairly labelled difficult to reach, and therefore underserved by health care, still need to be reached.”