August, 2020

Why transition to high school puts some kids at risk of mental illness

The transition from elementary school to high school can be stressful. Like other major life changes, it can put children at greater risk for depression, anxiety and other psychiatric illnesses.

The Depression, Anxiety and Stress Lab in UBC’s department of psychology is conducting research to identify which kids are most at risk, and why. They invite families to participate if they have children who will be entering high school in September.

Ellen Jopling, a master’s candidate in clinical psychology, spoke with UBC News about the research.

Ellen Jopling

What’s the motivation for this study?

EJ: By the end of the first year of high school, about 11.5 per cent of kids will have experienced a depressive episode. By the end of high school, almost 40 per cent of kids will have struggled with a psychiatric illness. And meeting criteria for a psychiatric disorder in high school means you are three times more likely to experience a disorder later in life, so we know it’s a huge issue that can arise during that transition. What we don’t know is, who will be part of that 11.5 per cent? Or that 40 per cent? We are working to identify factors that affect mental health during this transition so we can develop early intervention and prevention strategies to help kids and parents.

How will you identify these factors?

EJ: We’re recruiting youth who are starting at a new school for Grade 8, so 12-year-olds entering adolescence. We’ll be looking at biological factors—for example, we’ll have participants collect their own saliva during the first couple of days of high school to measure cortisol, a key stress hormone. We’re also completing clinical interviews with youth and their parents, so we can understand how kids are doing. And we’re looking at emotional factors by having participants track their moods every day for the first two weeks of high school. We want to put together a comprehensive picture that will help us understand the factors that come together to increase risk or promote resilience.

Once you’ve put the picture together, what will you do with the information?

EJ: We hope to create resources to share with parents in the community. One would be a large multi-user website, somewhere for parents to go who are wondering, “What can I do to help my kid?” Other strategies could include talks in the community, YouTube videos for kids and parents to watch, and reaching out to media with tip-based knowledge for parents.

What can families expect if they decide to participate?

EJ: They’ll start with two sessions in person at UBC, where the youth and one parent or caregiver will come in and complete a couple of tasks and interviews. Right before high school, the youth will complete questionnaires online from home, and then some online questions during the first two weeks of high school. Three months later, the youth completes another questionnaire from home, and then six months after starting high school they come back to UBC for a final session. The honorarium is $130, and families can apply on our website to participate.

And what if your participants don’t have these types of struggles? 

EJ: We’ll learn from them in the same way we learn from kids who do struggle. By identifying youth who had a great high school transition and found it to be a positive experience, we can learn what may have contributed to that resilience. There are a number of other things we might find. The important piece is that we’ll learn the flip side of what put kids at risk.


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