FORBOW research coordinator Emily Howes Vallis. Photo: Contributed

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Researchers are reaching out to junior and senior high school students in the Halifax area looking for adolescents — particularly BIPOC, trans and non-binary youth — to participate in a mental health research study that could help future generations.

Families Overcoming Risks Building Opportunities for Wellbeing (FORBOW) is a longitudinal research study led by Dr. Rudolf Uher, Canada Research Chair in Early Intervention in Psychiatry at Dalhousie University.

The long-term observational study is examining what promotes mental health development in children.

“Our goal is to learn how to predict who may be most at risk for future mental illness and then work to develop interventions to prevent this onset,” FORBOW research coordinator Emily Howes Vallis said in an interview.

Over the course of its nine-year history, the program has recruited more than 280 participating families, with more than 550 children participating on an annual basis. Howes Vallis said one of their long-term goals is collecting information on risk factors.

“We’ve learned a lot about cognitive performance in kids, which hopefully can go on to create interventions in the future. We’re not fully there yet,” she said.

“We’ve also been exploring brain imaging to see if there are differences in brains of some of the children that may predict later risk or that may be associated with their family history/status of illness.”

FORBOW study researchers recently received Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) approval to invite families in HRCE’s junior and senior high schools to participate. Communication about the study has already been sent to several school families in HRM.

“I think the most important thing (for us) is just listening to the voices of Nova Scotians and hearing their experiences and hearing how things might change for them as their kids develop,” Howes Vallis said.

“Then we can use that information to find ways to help this generation, but also future generations of young people to stay healthy.”

Howes Vallis said while many parents and families with younger children are actively participating, researchers are looking to recruit more older children in the study. They want to know how teenagers are doing overall, what their experiences are “in general,” and how they’re coping amid COVID-19.

One group in particular is also being sought out.

“In terms of including BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) and trans folks, they’re very underrepresented in a lot of research,” Howes Vallis said.

“However, they are within our community and we really want to know that the information we’re collecting actually represents our community and can be useful for those individuals who are sometimes most at risk when they’re entering clinical services.”

She described the participation and cooperation of families as “wonderful.” Involvement in the study includes an annual visit where they share their experiences over the course of the past year and work on games and puzzles that explore things like memory and language ability.

“(Families) are very excited about being involved with something that’s one day a year,” she said. “We can use that information to steer things for Nova Scotia and change things. I think a lot of the motivation is really that.”

Howes Vallis said when families join FORBOW, they can also choose to consent to sub-studies that may include things like genetic counselling or brain imaging. Those research studies that run “underneath and within” FORBOW are investigating testing interventions to see how and if they work with youth.

“One that I’ve personally been coordinating for the past little bit is a genetic counselling study to look at cannabis use and genetic counselling around the risk of serious mental health outcomes if children do choose to use cannabis,” she explained.

“We’ve also been looking at some of the children in our study (who consent)…who may have some early signs that may lead us to believe they’re more at risk, like anxiety through childhood…Hopefully we will be able to really change things in the future.”

Pandemic research ‘really promising’

Howes Vallis said one of the advantages to being a longer term study is that when COVID-19 hit, FORBOW already had a substantial amount of pre-pandemic data to draw on.

Some participants had been part of the study for up to eight years, so when things were shut down early last year, their principal investigator recognized a great opportunity to learn more about how the pandemic was impacting Nova Scotian parents and youth. Researchers conducted hundreds of interviews — typically over phone or Zoom in those early days — to learn about participants’ pandemic experiences.

“Something that we learned that was really helpful for Nova Scotia in particular that’s very different than results that we’ve seen in the States is that the CERB was very helpful, especially in buffering some of the potential negative outcomes of loss of income for some of our lower income families,” Howes Vallis said.

She also examined symptoms of depression in both parents and their offspring participating in the study. She said while there wasn’t a large increase among parents, there was a slight increase in symptoms of depression among children when compared to pre-pandemic days.

“Very interesting to me, which I didn’t necessarily expect, is there were two groups of kids that seemed to struggle the most and those were actually our older girls, so kind of going into late teens, university age, the girls in our study that do not necessarily have a familial history of mental illness,” Howes Vallis explained.

“So it was kind of a surprise that they were the ones who were struggling more. And also our trans youth showed increased rates of depression, which also prompts a real hope to include more trans and non-binary youth within our sample.”

While COVID-19 has “absolutely impacted” people in many challenging ways, Howes Vallis considers what they’ve gleaned from their research “really promising.”

“In Nova Scotia in particular, we have been quite resilient, especially some of our parents who we may think would be more high risk, who have had serious mental illness in the past,”she said. “We’re not seeing the big increases that we expected.”

Families, particularly those with adolescents interested in participating in the study, are invited to visit the FORBOW website where they can learn more and find contact information.

“Our (health care) system is of course very overburdened, as we know. The hope of this study is there’s a lot of research looking at prevention, and if we can prevent the onset, we can also help individuals in terms of their functioning through their life,” Howes Vallis said.

“But it could also reduce the burden on the mental health care system through having fewer individuals being ill.”

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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