Child mental health researcher gets funding boost from feds

Three University of Manitoba researchers have become the recipients of over $3 million in health research Foundation Grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), providing long-term, stable support to top Canadian health researchers.

One of the three recipients is Tracie Afifi, associate professor in the department of community health sciences at the U of M, who received $883,855 for her project “Preventing child maltreatment: Changing a child’s trajectory, improving health, and strengthening families.”

“I find that this area of research is – it’s going to sound strange – easy to talk about, although it’s not easy to talk about. It’s real life. Whether you have kids or don’t have kids, you were a child. There are connections to childhood for everyone,” Afifi said.

There is a vast amount of research illustrating the devastating effects of child maltreatment, which includes abuse and neglect.

Abuse and neglect are key predictors of poor auditory comprehension and verbal ability, impaired brain development, juvenile delinquency, adult criminality, and conduct disorder, among others.

According to Afifi, there has been a staggering lack of focus on the prevention of child maltreatment in the discipline of epidemiological mental health research. A comprehensive database compiled through a Statistics Canada survey on a range of mental health issues, including child abuse, was completed in 2012. But this database, while opening the door for many mental health researchers, is not exhaustive – the survey focuses primarily on physical abuse, sexual abuse, and intimate partner violence.

Therefore, Afifi’s first priority in her research is to create a comprehensive, sophisticated database for Manitoba.

“The child abuse data sets that exist currently, and the ones we’ve used a lot, sometimes measure abuse fairly well but sometimes it’s measured really poorly,” she said.

“They’ll ask questions like ‘were you abused?’ and we don’t really know what that means, so it’s hard to answer accurately. With our experience of working with data sets from other countries and looking at data sets from Canada, we’re going to be able to develop a really strong data set to examine abuse, maltreatment, and other adverse childhood events.”

Because her research is focused on Manitoba, Afifi has the opportunity to link her data with the administrative data from the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy – enabling her to analyze connections between child maltreatment and health, education, and housing outcomes over a lifetime.

“That component is really unique to Manitoba. We wouldn’t be able to do that in other provinces because they don’t have an administrative data set as sophisticated as the one we have here,” Afifi said.

But raw data collection is just the beginning for Afifi, who would like to use her research to actively prevent child abuse going forward.

“Our thinking is if we could just prevent that abuse from occurring in the first place, an individual would have a far better chance of having better mental health, physical health, and it goes beyond that: it’s related to poor academic functioning and cognition, social relationships, all those sorts of things,” she said.

“Just preventing the child abuse alone would have a big impact in improving someone’s life, even if you kept every other aspect the same.”
Afifi also looks to provide support for those who have already experienced child maltreatment.

By analyzing the lives of abuse victims with better socioeconomic outcomes in adulthood, Afifi hopes to develop strategies to help people who’ve experienced childhood maltreatment improve their lives.

“We’re looking at prevention and intervention,” she said.

“Some people who experience child maltreatment will experience all these negative consequences, some people will only experience some of them, and some people will be pretty resilient and can manage effectively without experiencing a lot of devastating consequences.”

With 32 per cent of Canadians and 40 per cent of Manitobans reporting being abused as children, Afifi plans to continue her research even beyond the expiry of the CIHR funding.

“It’s easy to become passionate about it because child maltreatment has such harmful consequences for children; trying to improve that makes it easy to stay motivated,” she said.

“It’s the beginning of a lifetime of work.”