Four leading child mental health research teams join forces to understand impact of COVID-19 pandemic
TORONTO - The COVID-19 pandemic has required swift, decisive action to minimize the spread of the virus. The result has been a fundamental societal shift with closures of schools and child care centres, limits on social gatherings, and many events and activities cancelled or postponed. This has impacted children and families who must adapt to learning in an online environment and cope with a significant loss of social interactions as well as the sudden absence of their usual routines.
Yet, there is limited data available to understand how public health emergency measures have affected the mental health of children and families – data that would be invaluable in evaluating the future of these emergency measures.
Researchers at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) have brought together four leading teams in child mental health research to tackle this data gap in real time. Their study will draw on four robust cohorts of children and youth in Ontario: the SickKids Child and Youth Psychiatry Outpatient Program, the Province of Ontario Neurodevelopmental Network (POND), The Applied Research Group for Kids (TARGet Kids!) and Spit for Science. This is the first time all four research groups have joined forces.
Unprecedented collaboration may lead to wealth of information
“We know the public health emergency measures for the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted all children and families. But we don’t have the data we need to understand how it has impacted them and how they are coping,” says Dr. Daphne Korczak, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at SickKids and Principal Investigator of the study. “The researchers who have come together on this project are all leaders in their fields and have shown an unbelievable spirit of collaboration in support of the best interests of children and families.”
The study will determine the impact of COVID-19 emergency measures on child and family mental health, well-being and functioning. This includes understanding how children and their parents are feeling, the impact on their relationships with friends and extended family members, and any effects on their daily activities, including physical activity, eating habits, screen time, and sleep.
By leveraging two clinical cohorts (SickKids outpatients and POND) and two general population cohorts (TARGet Kids! and Spit for Science), the research team will be able to compare the mental health trajectories of both vulnerable and otherwise healthy children and youth throughout the pandemic. They will also determine potential risk and protective factors for children and youth that could inform future mental health interventions.
Many of the samples of children and their families are already well characterized as the four research programs have been ongoing for several years. However, the study will also be open to families who have not previously participated in any of these cohorts. In total, the researchers plan to recruit over 6,000 children from birth to age 18, and their families. Data will be collected through surveys that will be administered monthly. All data will be collected over a nine-month period.
“Our goal is to provide insights for health-care providers, public health officials and policymakers that will direct mental health care service planning and help to limit the impact of emergency measures for children and families,” says Korczak, who is also an Associate Scientist in the Neurosciences & Mental Health Program at SickKids and Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. “We hope these insights will inform public health discussions around reducing emergency measures and, if necessary, their reimplementation during another COVID-19 wave of infection.”
The study is open to families with youth age 0-18 across Canada. For information on how you can participate, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. This research is supported by the SickKids Centre for Brain and Mental Health, the Edwin S.H. Leong Centre for Healthy Children and the SickKids Foundation.
About the research groups
The SickKids Child and Youth Psychiatry Outpatient Program
Co-leads: Dr. Daphne Korczak and Dr. Suneeta Monga, Associate Chief of Psychiatry and Project Investigator at SickKids, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto
The SickKids Child and Youth Psychiatry Outpatient Program provides psychiatric assessment and specialized treatment for patients with a variety of mental health concerns. The program is typically accessed through a referral from a paediatrician or family physician and encompasses a number of specialized mental health services at SickKids, including the hospital’s anxiety disorders program, ADHD clinics and CLIMB depression program.
The POND Network
Lead: Dr. Evdokia Anagnostou, Senior Clinician Scientist, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, Professor in the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Toronto
The POND Network is a large research network, funded by the Ontario Brain Institute, enrolling children and youth 0-21 years old who have neurodevelopmental concerns as well as typically developing youth. Participants are recruited across Ontario (Holland Bloorview and SickKids in Toronto, Queen’s University in Kingston, McMaster University in Hamilton and Western University in London). As an integrated discovery program, its aims to understand the neurobiology and trajectories of kids and youth with neurodevelopmental disorders such as ASD, ADHD, OCD and intellectual disability and translate the findings into effective new treatments.
Lead: Dr. Catherine S. Birken, Staff Paediatrician in Paediatric Medicine, Senior Scientist in the Child Health Evaluative Sciences Program at SickKids, Professor in the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Toronto
TARGet Kids! is a research study enrolling healthy children aged 0 to 5 years with an aim to link early life exposures to health problems including obesity, micronutrient deficiencies and developmental problems. TARGet Kids! is co-lead by Dr. Jonathon Maguire, Staff Paediatrician and Scientist in the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute at St. Michael’s Hospital. The study is a collaboration between researchers, primary care practitioners, parents and children designed to improve child health, and the quality of children’s healthcare.
Spit for Science
Lead: Dr. Jennifer Crosbie, Psychologist, Associate Scientist in the Neurosciences & Mental Health Program at SickKids, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto
Spit for Science recruits children aged 6 to 17 years with the aim to examine how genes work with the environment to impact physical and mental health. The team’s current goal is to recruit 30,000 participants to further understand the etiology of childhood mental and physical health. Participants’ data is a vital resource for collaborative research as it forms the foundation of Healthy Kids Biobank at SickKids.
Other SickKids researchers developing the COVID-19 mental health study are Drs. Alice Charach, Psychiatrist, Project Investigator in the Child Health Evaluative Sciences program at SickKids, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto, and Katherine Tombeau Cost, Research Associate in the Department of Psychiatry at SickKids.