Assessing mental health education

Yifeng Wei awarded $105,000 doctoral research award from CIHR

- July 8, 2011

PhD candidate Yifeng Wei and her thesis advisor Pat McGrath at the IWK Health Centre. (Bruce Bottomley Photo)
PhD candidate Yifeng Wei and her thesis advisor Pat McGrath at the IWK Health Centre. (Bruce Bottomley Photo)

Teens and mental illness—what helps them cope and what doesn’t? For the first time anywhere in the world, researcher Yifeng Wei is determined to find out.

The Dalhousie PhD candidate was recently awarded one of the largest doctoral research awards available to figure out which school-based mental health programs are effective, which are not, and which may even be causing harm.

Mental health literacy

“I’m looking at mental health literacy programs for youth in a school setting,” explains Ms. Wei, who received a $105,000 research award from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). The funds will cover her tuition and research expenses over three years.

Although mental illness continues to carry a stigma among young people, it’s gradually being talked about more and more. Even so, the shame of mental illness stubbornly persists, leading teens to cope in destructive ways, for example, by drinking or drug use or by isolating themselves, limiting social interactions and withdrawing from family members.

Serious mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia often emerges in adolescence. It’s estimated that 15 per cent of young people in Canada are living with a mental illness or addiction severe enough to require professional care.

“Depression is actually fairly common in youth,” says Ms. Wei, who arrived from China for her studies 10 years ago. “But for some it may be hard to distinguish what is normal distress and what is not. If depression is lasting longer than six months, for example, it’s not normal anymore and the teen should be seeking help.”

Ms. Wei is supported in her work by Dalhousie professors Patrick McGrath, vice president of research at the IWK Health Centre; Stan Kutcher, Sun Life Financial Chair in Adolescent Mental Health; and Jill Hayden, assistant professor with the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology.


Over the next three years, she will be doing a systematic review of existing mental health programs for youth existing worldwide. As well, she will be evaluating the mental health curriculum for high schools that has been developed through Dr. Kutcher’s team by doing randomized control trials—following two groups of students, one group which has received the education on mental health, and one which has not.

“This research is the first in Canada to prove this kind of program works or not,” she says.

Until now, mental health problems faced by young people have not been a focus in our society, explains Dr. McGrath. “It has not been a priority in our society and that’s been reflected in the (lack of) research. Finally though, a cultural change has occurred recognizing mental health as a larger priority.”


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