Dr. Sheri Madigan wins eighth annual Royal-Mach-Gaensslen Prize

Presentation of the 2022 Royal-Mach-Gaensslen Prize to Dr. Sheri Madigan
When: Monday, December 5, 2022, 2-3 p.m.
Where: The Royal Mental Health Centre, Ottawa, and livestreamed via the web

Canada Research Chair in Determinants of Child Development, Sheri Madigan, is studying child mental health in the Department of Psychology at the University of Calgary. Photo by Riley Brandt, U of C.

Groundbreaking research into the effects of parents’ mental health and intergenerational trauma on children’s mental health has garnered Dr. Sheri Madigan this year’s Royal-Mach-Gaensslen Prize, sponsored jointly by the University of Ottawa Institute of Mental Health Research at The Royal and the Mach-Gaensslen Foundation of Canada. Now in its eighth year, the prize is awarded annually to an outstanding mid-career mental health researcher.

“To help children with adversity they are facing, you need to understand what is happening with the parents and in the family,” explains Dr. Madigan, who is a clinical psychologist, professor, and Canada Research Chair in the Department of Psychology at the University of Calgary and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute. She says the effects of parents’ mental health on children — and of children’s mental health on parents — can be complex. Her research has looked at the effects of parents’ trauma history or mental illness on children, finding that trauma and mental illness can be intergenerational.

But her research is also showing that family history is not destiny. Community supports, social interventions, and trauma-informed care can help improve the outcomes for young people.

Dr. Madigan’s research uses innovative approaches to understanding children and youth mental health. Her research team works with data from a long-term study of mothers and children in Alberta, called All Our Families. They also combine data from previous studies in what are called systematic reviews or meta-analyses. Although many studies of children’s mental health are small — often too small to reach strong conclusions — putting together data from many studies can bring patterns to light. “We have used this approach to look at effects on children’s mental health resulting from the quality of their attachment to their parents, their physical activity, and their screen time,” explains Dr. Madigan.

One of the most important studies Dr. Madigan’s team has done is a meta-analysis of the mental health of children and youth around the world during the pandemic. They looked at 29 studies, involving more than 80,000 young people. It showed that depression rates were over 25 per cent, and anxiety rates were over 20 per cent —about double the estimated rates before the pandemic. The good news is that the majority of young people are doing okay, but there’s a significant group who are experiencing mental health problems. “How do we help them cope and recover?” asks Dr. Madigan.

Dr. Madigan also tries to bridge the gap between research and practice by working with clinical teams. She has conducted and applied research in conjunction with a clinical centre for children affected by abuse in Calgary.

She gets her research results out to the public, where they can influence parenting, clinical practice, and policies on children’s mental health. She has written articles appearing in newspapers and on websites based on her research and, in 2020, appeared on CBC’s science program The Nature of Things to discuss the effect of screen time on children’s mental health.

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