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New assistant professor investigates social, intergenerational influences on child and youth mental health
by Sharon Mah
The Faculty of Health Sciences and the Children’s Health Policy Centre added assistant professor Kimberly Thomson to their ranks in September 2023. Thomson has a strong interest in researching the social conditions and factors in the lives of children and youth that influence their future mental health outcomes. She is also focusing on better understanding intergenerational influences of parents and grandparents on mental health outcomes for younger populations.
Previous research in child mental health has found that half of lifetime mental health disorders first start before age 14, suggesting that something – whether biological or social or both – is happening earlier in life that lays the groundwork for these experiences. Thomson’s research focuses on children and youth because it’s one of the earliest opportunities practitioners and policy makers have to address problems and promote mental health and well-being throughout the life course of the individual. “I’m interested in seeing how we might be able to detect early indicators and intergenerational patterns that predict children’s future mental health outcomes,” she says.
Another avenue of investigation for Thomson is looking at methods that assess the impacts of policies on children’s social-emotional development and mental health. She has worked on several projects in this arena, most recently with UBC: Thomson was one of several researchers who collaborated with the Canadian Mental Health Association to assess the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and families across Canada. She also contributed to the examination of the mental health impacts of the pandemic on students and teachers, partnering with the BC Ministry of Education and BC Teachers’ Federation to complete this work.
“I find this connection of research and policy and practice to be one of the most rewarding experiences because it’s taking something from the research world that can have an actual direct impact on children and families.”
One of her ongoing research projects started when Thomson was completing a postdoctoral fellowship in Australia, developing and setting up an Australian-adapted Child Development Monitoring System, based on the Canadian system developed here in British Columbia, which allows investigators to routinely collect local population-level data on children’s health, development and social contexts. “One of the highlights from this experience was traveling to rural and remote communities to speak with leaders about their community needs, and what data they would find useful for supporting their programming and local decision-making,” recalls Thomson. She worked directly with policymakers to show them how useful the data could be for shaping policy and making decisions. Thomson is currently working with both monitoring system teams to explore how to make the tool even better for local decision makers.
Much of Thomson’s research at SFU will take place in collaboration with the Children’s Health Policy Centre, which is currently co-led by Professor Emerita Charlotte Waddell and Assistant Professor Nicole Catherine. Her work at the CHPC will see her contributing to existing projects including the Children’s Mental Health Research Quarterly, a series of systematic reviews on priority child mental health topics identified by policymakers, and research led by BC’s Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council supporting healthy development and well-being for Indigenous children. She will also be strengthening connections with collaborators at the BC Centre for Disease Control, UBC’s Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP), and the Australian Intergenerational Cohort Consortium.
“I feel passionately about children having an equitable start to life, and the Centre provides such a good platform to work towards this,” says Thomson. “The Children’s Health Policy Centre is a wonderful fit for me – I’m excited to get to learn from my colleagues and contribute on this team.”