What are the most important factors that can prevent mental health issues among young people and what is the best way to do this?
Jennine Rawana is passionate about youth mental health. Her research into the development of mental health issues, particularly internalizing issues like depression and emotion dysregulation, has stimulated policy changes at the local and provincial levels; her focus on positive psychology as a framework for school engagement has been successfully applied in several school boards across Ontario. Supporting children, adolescents and young adults in the development of healthy outlooks also inspires her support of Aboriginal communities and youth, who often face unique challenges.
I come from a family where there was always an emphasis on supporting the success and well-being of each other, especially the next generation, which helped shape my focus as a researcher on child and adolescent psychology. Growing up in northern Ontario, I also had many opportunities to work with young people as a camp counsellor, and work in schools as part of my clinical psychology placements; I’ve always had an affinity for working with young people. The research I do looks at the developmental pathways of young people over time, between 12 and 20 years of age when there is so much transition. Research shows that happiness is decreasing in young people in Canada, and I would like to find ways to improve their well-being.
If we prevent mental health issues among young people, it can stave off many health issues later on in life.
When I first came to York, I helped develop the Aboriginal Mentoring Program in conjunction with Aboriginal Student Services. We created a mentoring program for first- and second-year students, or transfer students, mentored by either graduate students or upper-level undergraduates. The program helps to orient them to York and provide peer advising. We know that Aboriginal students have a lower graduation rate than non-Aboriginal kids, but the research shows that if you just get students through first year, they’re more likely to graduate and feel more engaged in their studies.
With researchers across Canada, I contributed to a policy on youth development for the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services, which is used by all government agencies in Ontario that work with youth. My contribution summarized emotional regulation from a developmental point of view. Following this, I co-led a special issue for the Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health with Jennifer Connolly. It was a process piece to explain Ontario’s model of including researchers in creating policy, which is not as common as it should be. I wanted to share the model with other jurisdictions, and share the knowledge we gleaned from the process.
I’ve also created a strength-based school engagement tool funded by the Child and Family Services of Waterloo Region in conjunction with the Wellington Catholic School Board and Lakehead Public Schools. The tool helps schools understand how much a child is engaged in school, by looking at protective factors and not just risk factors. We found that kids have a cluster of strengths that can be protective against mental health issues and promote better engagement at school. It is important to emphasize psychological strengths. New research shows that when you think positively, you spiral faster into more positive thoughts. We want to shift the thinking and shift the framework of how we look at students.
Ideally, my lofty 40-year plan would be to develop programs and curriculum that would be taught in schools to promote mental health and emotion regulation among young people. I would love for the Ministry of Education to mandate, just as they do with physical education classes, a mental health promotion curriculum given from the first day you come into school to the day you leave.