Education research offers new hope for youth with mental health disorders

At the age of 10, Stacey Espinet, PhD, watched in quiet amazement as her older sister walked across the stage to accept her diploma from Western University. This moment of inspiration came full circle for Espinet when she returned to Western, this time to pursue postdoctorate research at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.

“My sister was the first one in our immediate family to attend university,” said Espinet. “I looked up to her and was inspired to one day attend and graduate from university as well.”

With this childhood moment acting as a driving force for Espinet, it is no wonder her current research focuses on empowering youth through the development of a curriculum aiding primary care physicians to provide better mental health care for young people.

Following her PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of Toronto, Espinet came to Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, where her research is now aimed at providing better care for paediatric patients in rural areas. In these remote areas there are higher rates of mental health difficulties, yet individuals have a harder time accessing medical care.

“Primary care physicians play a unique role in assessing and managing paediatric patients with mental health disorders, yet only a minority have received adequate, formal training,” she explained.

To best address this gap, Espinet is working with Lorelei Lingard, PhD, director, Centre for Education Research and Innovation, and Dr. Margaret Steele, vice dean, Hospital and Interfaculty Affairs, and professor, Departments of Psychiatry, Paediatrics, and Family Medicine, to develop a comprehensive curriculum that will be delivered to physicians in remote and rural areas across Canada to better care for youth with mental health disorders.

Grounded by a study that assessed the educational needs of physicians in rural areas and peer-reviewed literature on paediatric mental health treatment, the curriculum will provide physicians with the education they need to best identify and treat youth who are suffering from mental health difficulties.

For Espinet, the support she receives at the School is a key factor in developing such an expansive and important project.

“I have received extraordinary direction from Dr. Lingard and Dr. Margaret Steele,” she said. “Schulich Medicine & Dentistry is a place where you feel completely supported, both academically and socially.”

Espinet’s sister now lives in Trinidad and Tobago with much of their extended family. Yet, the dedication and perseverance she instilled in Espinet shines through when she describes the long-term goals of her project.  

“My hope is that this educational initiative will truly have a significant impact not only on physician practice and attitudes, but also on child and youth mental health outcomes, particularly in rural and remote communities most in need of support.”