The Children’s Health Policy Centre in SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences connects research, policy & practice to improve children’s wellbeing
The theme for the 2016 UN International Day of Families on May 15th is “Families, healthy lives and sustainable future,” with a special emphasis on the most vulnerable members: children.
At SFU’s Children’s Health Policy Centre, every day is devoted to enhancing children’s social and emotional wellbeing, or mental health. Its work is guided by the central question, “What are the most effective ways to ensure that every child can flourish and participate?”
Dr. Charlotte Waddell, the Centre’s director, believes passionately that society should invest in providing all children with the best possible start in life, starting as early as possible. Mental health problems are like the tip of an iceberg. When problems come to the surface they can often be traced back to childhood difficulties —for example, when families have to cope with adversities like low income, or unsafe or unstable home and neighbourhood environments. But these and many other risk factors are often preventable.
So in 2014 and 2015, Waddell presented evidence to the BC Legislative Assembly’s Select Standing Committee on Children and Youth, advocating for a public health strategy that puts children firmly at its center. The Center also regularly consults with policymakers who are seeking to improve outcomes for kids and families.
Originally inspired by working in First Nations communities and seeing the enormous impact of social determinants, particularly on children’s mental health, Waddell joined SFU’s new Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) in 2006. Now a Professor, she holds the Canada Research Chair in Children’s Health Policy. But Waddell is also a practicing child and adolescent psychiatrist, working with young people involved in the child protection and youth justice systems. She says: “These young people inspire and inform every aspect of my research and teaching — they let me know in no uncertain terms what still needs to be done.”
Located in the FHS at SFU, the Children’s Health Policy Centre takes a collaborative, research-based approach to influencing practice and policy. In consultation with policymakers and practitioners, they produce the Children’s Mental Health Research Quarterly — a publication providing policymakers, practitioners and other front-line workers, and families with the latest systematic review evidence on helping children. Supported by the BC Ministry of Children and Family Development and available free online, the Quarterly has covered topics ranging from preventing prenatal alcohol exposure and bullying to treating anxiety and depression in children. The Centre also posts research reports online — for example, documenting the acute prevention and treatment service shortfalls for children, and sharing approaches to closing the gaps. (Please see childhealthpolicy.ca for more information and to subscribe to the Quarterly and the Center’s research reports.)
In 2011, the Centre also embarked on the first Canadian scientific evaluation of the landmark Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP) program. NFP involves intensive nurse home visiting, starting in early pregnancy and continuing until children reach age two years. The goals are to improve children’s mental health and development, while also improving mother’s life circumstances. To ensure highest impact, NFP focuses on young, first-time mothers who are coping with challenges such as living on low income. NFP was first piloted in Canada at McMaster University. Now, through the BC Healthy Connections Project, the Centre is leading a large randomized controlled trial evaluating how well NFP works in in BC communities. The team includes researchers from McMaster University, UBC and the University of Victoria. Dr. Nicole Catherine, SFU Adjunct Professor and Mowafaghian University Research Associate, is Scientific Director. Supported by the BC Ministry of Health and by donors such as the Mowafaghian Foundation and the R. and J. Stern Family Foundation, the BC Healthy Connections Project will be running through until 2021. Preliminary results will be posted starting next year. At every stage of its development, the project has also involved close policy and practice collaborations — with the BC Ministry of Health, the BC Ministry of Children and Family Development, Fraser Health, Interior Health, Island Health, Northern Health, and Vancouver Coastal Health. (Please see childhealthpolicy.ca for more information and to subscribe to the BC Healthy Connections Project newsletters.)
Based on working with children over many years, Waddell has seen the difference it can make — to address underlying causes and prevent mental health problems early in life, and to provide effective care before problems become needlessly entrenched. She remains passionate: “Children’s mental health problems are the leading health problems that Canadian children face from infancy onwards, and we still have a long way to go to address this.” She adds: “Investments in children’s mental health are among the most important investments that any society can make.”
Dr. Charlotte Waddell is a child and adolescent psychiatrist with longstanding interests in health policy and population and public health. She holds the Canada Research Chair in Children’s Health Policy and is Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at SFU, where she is also Director of the Children’s Health Policy Centre. After her basic training at UBC, Charlotte worked with First Nations and Aboriginal communities across BC before going on to complete her MD, followed by residencies and post-graduate research training at McMaster University. She held faculty appointments at McMaster and UBC before joining SFU in 2006. Charlotte’s research focuses on reducing mental health disparities, starting in childhood, by improving the links between research and policy. She is currently co-leading the BC Healthy Connections Project, a five-year randomized controlled trial assessing the effectiveness of the Nurse-Family Partnership program at reducing child maltreatment and improving children’s mental health and development in Canadian settings (for more information on the BCHCP, please see childhealthpolicy.ca). In addition to her research, Charlotte teaches at SFU and consults with policy-makers at the regional, provincial and federal levels. She also continues to work as a psychiatrist with disadvantaged children and youth — who inspire and inform every aspect of her research and teaching.