I have set up this blog to post things that may be relevant to my areas of interest (e.g., family relationships, parenting, youth mental health, sexuality) or to professional issues (e.g., academia). The content will be lighter than what I may present in a peer-reviewed publication and is meant for a general audience.

A University Student’s Perspective on the Differences in Mental Health Between Canada and China 

Guest written by: Jie Zhang

I first began to consider mental health in my last year of high school. This is an especially important time for Chinese students, who are required to compete with approximately 9 million peers for university admission. During my last year, one of my good friends cried every day due to pressure to perform from school and family. She eventually received a diagnosis of depression from her doctor. This was the first time I became aware that someone in my inner circle had mental health problems. I realized then that these problems were closer to me than I had previously thought.

During university, I took a course called Global Mental Health, which covered global mental disorders and the prevalence of mental health problems. I learned that mental health issues are experienced by many people across the world, including individuals in our own communities. With this in mind, I went to my university’s psychological counselling centre to inquire about mental health problems in my community. Staff members reported that visits to the centre were infrequent, with only a few students asking for help with mental health problems each semester. This is consistent with what is known about help-seeking behaviours in China, where only a small percentage of those suffering from mental health problems reach out to service providers for support. One survey conducted in China found that only 8% of individuals with a mental health disorder reported seeking professional help in a general healthcare setting  [1]. An additional 5% reported seeking help from a mental health professional, many of whom were hospital-based psychiatrists. These low rates of treatment-seeking behaviours are especially significant when making comparisons to a country like Canada, where 1 in 3 individuals with mental health problems report seeking treatment [2].

From my perspective, the low utilization rate of mental health services in China is caused by a lack of knowledge surrounding mental health problems and services as well as social stigma, lack of family support, and financial barriers. What are mental health services? Admittedly, if you ask a Chinese person that question, I believe most do not have a full understanding of what that might include. Moreover, many Chinese people lack understanding of mental health problems [3]. Although Chinese people are generally knowledgeable about depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia, other disorders like bipolar disorder and Autism spectrum disorder are not well understood. As a result, individuals suffering from mental disorders often ignore their problems and refrain from seeking mental health help from professionals. When they do go to a hospital for help, it is often difficult to obtain an effective diagnosis and treatment due to doctors’ lack of specific knowledge about mental health [4].

The vast majority of mental health professionals in China are psychiatrists or psychiatric nurses, while there are few clinical psychologists and social workers. Furthermore, China has very few institutions and organizations that are equipped to provide mental health services [5]. In 2015, China was home to 27,733 psychiatrists (2.19 per 100,000 inhabitants), 57,591 psychiatric nurses (4.19 per 100,000), and 2,936 mental health services with approximately 433,000 psychiatric beds (31.5 per 100,000) [6]. Although the number of mental health professionals has been increasing in recent years in an attempt to meet substantial demand, the focus tends to be on stabilizing individuals with the most serious mental illness. What little professional help there is for individuals with non-acute needs is often akin to single sessions of life-coaching rather than empirically informed care that typically characterizes counselling in other parts of the world.

During my three month internship in Canada, I became interested in the differences in mental health services and awareness between Canada and China. Overall there is a greater awareness of mental health in Canada. In 2015, 81% of Canadians reported being aware of mental health issues [7]. In comparison, only a small proportion of residents in Shanghai (17.1%), China’s biggest city, reported being aware of mental health on even a basic level [8]. In addition to being more aware of mental health problems, Canadians are also more willing to seek help and treatment when compared to individuals in China. This may be accounted for by the fact that Canada has a more comprehensive mental health system, including doctors, nurses, counsellors, and schoolteachers that are equipped to provide mental health resources. Additionally, various empirically informed therapies are available in Canada, which allows for patients to choose among alternatives. Canada’s mental health system is not without its limits, however. Specifically, Canadians often face barriers to accessing mental health services such as financial limitations and reduced availability of professionals. It is also important to note that social stigma surrounding mental health is present and prevents many Canadians from seeking professional help.

I was also surprised to learn that Canadians have easy access to information, self-help content, and professionally created scientific videos about mental health from the internet. This may account for the increased understanding of mental health in Canada. However, although access to services and information surrounding mental health are more limited in China, the Chinese are fortunate to live in a social environment that promotes harmony, inclusivity, and openness. Because of this, people are typically friendly and compassionate towards individuals with mental health problems despite common misunderstandings and prejudice. Nevertheless, according to the 2018 World Happiness Report, Canada was rated as the 7th happiest country in the world while China lagged far behind in 86th place  [9]. This suggests that while collective harmony is important for individual health and wellbeing, China could benefit greatly from an increased focus on the nuts and bolts of mental health service access.

In my opinion, China and Canada can learn from each other. Mental health awareness campaigns (e.g., Mental Heath Awareness Week and Psychology Month) have been successful in creating widespread awareness of mental health in Canada. Similar campaigns could be introduced in China as a way to raise awareness levels and end the stigma associated with mental health. Alternatively, in China, families are very close-knit. Emphasis is placed on the family as an important source of social support, particularly in times of hardship. This highlights an area of possible improvement for Canadians, who could further develop their collective wellbeing by building more intimate family relationships. In conclusion, both Canada and China have a long way to go to improve the wellbeing of their citizens.




[1] Philips et al., 2009

[2] Canadian Civil Liberties Association, 2017

[3] Gong, Tong, & Furnham, 2014

[4] Wang, 2012

[5] Liu et al., 2011

[6] Xiang et al., 2018

[7] Bell Canada, 2015

[8] Zhen et al., 2012

[9] United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, 2018




The Pros and Cons of Technology in an Interconnected World

A few months ago, my mother purchased Alexa for my family. Alexa is among the newer technological gadgets to infiltrate our chaotic lives. Often times, these gadgets are touted as helping to streamline the chaos or to make things easier. They also promise improved communication despite distances with family and friends. For those of you who feel piled under multiple cellular phones, computers, iPads, game systems, and fancy cars (if anyone is looking to give away a Tesla, please look no further!), you may on occasion come up for air and wonder whether your life or your family’s life truly is any better and whether you actually are more or less connected.

Setting up Alexa was easy enough—plug it in to an electric outlet, type in the password to my WIFI, and get online. I should have stopped there. My wife and I spent the next few hours switching between laughing and pulling out hair from our respective heads. On the humorous side, I tried asking Alexa to show me the clip from the children’s movie Sing, where one of the characters shouts, “Look at her butt.” I was attempting to show the clip to my then five- and two-year-old daughters, as the latter had been going around for a month saying, “Look at my butt. Look at my butt.” As you might imagine, there is a lot out there on the Internet regarding the hind side. With some jeers and laughter, we soon found the correct video. Alexa also told us jokes when we asked. On the other side, it was mind boggling how this device is supposed to be set up with all other accounts (e.g., Amazon Prime, Pandora). This raised the question of whether this gadget and others like it, touted as helping to make things easier or to connect to others in novel ways, really do the job.

Keeping up with technological advances and trying to connect to one more network, device, or service is enough to make one’s head spin (I am not going to even touch the privacy issues that have verified many of conspiracy theorists’ worst notions). Does it really help me to connect with people either on the other end of these devices or with the people who are physically around us? I often wonder about this and I tend to instinctively resist encroaching technology. However, I know there is considerable work being done to investigate the extent to which families, partners, friends, and strangers connect. For the most part, the answer to the question about whether technology enriches our lives and connects us to others is both yes and no and even more obscurely, “it depends”. To be a bit less flippant, it depends on how the technology is used. If it is used to replace face-to-face contact to an extreme or if we value ourselves based on responses or feedback from these systems – looking for “Likes” on Facebook (e.g.,Burrow & Rainone, 2017) – then there can be a downside. Alternatively, because it facilitates regular communication (e.g., Neale & Brown, 2016) and because we may be more likely to present our more genuine selves due to perceived anonymity or distance (although the opposite can also be true; see Drouin, Miller, Wehle, & Hernandez, 2016), it can also enhance our connections with others. Furthermore, the extent to which we transfer our (online) connections with others to our offline relationships—for example, talking to my wife about the communication I had with my mother (her mother-in-law)—may broaden connections within families and social networks. Furthermore, online technologies allow us to seek out social networks that fit with our interests, no matter how strange we think they are. As a result, the person who is the most outcast in offline society can find someone to “talk” to in the online world.

Even more recently, I read an article about the Crisis Text Line (see https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/12/opinion/a-crisis-line-that-calms-with-texting-and-data.html) that considers how youth often communicate when they may be at their worst state. At first, I was skeptical, but then I considered a person who may be thinking about suicide calling a toll-free hotline and what hurdles that really introduces to a person. I could definitely see the value of texting. Amazingly, the system allows for a data-driven risk analysis based on the typed messages to triage who might be in the most need of care. Thus, technology has its place and can be good. Nevertheless, this does not mean I will refuse to give up my old curmudgeon stance that things were better before we had all this stuff. Can’t we go back to the days with our single rotary dial phones in the middle of the kitchen where every conversation was heard by the entire family?!? Talk about real entertainment!



Tags: Social Media, Technology, Online Communication


Inpatient Psychiatric Care for Youth in New Brunswick: So Nice, Some Do It Twice

Guest written by: David Miller

One of these things is not like the others:

  1. Mental health
  2. Physical health
  3. Oil changes for your car

Did you figure it out? I’ll give you a hint: this is obviously a trick made to emphasize what little regularity we attach to mental health assessment. You go to the doctor for regular check-ups or to receive specific treatments. Those guys at your local 30-minute oil change joint? You better believe they’ll have you in there regularly for your $25.99-that-ends-up-being-$54.26-after-the-“free”-wiper-blades oil change. These things are absolutes, at least to the extent that you’re expected to complete them with regularity or else face catastrophe.

Treatment for mental health issues is a total 180. We don’t go for regular checkups. We don’t always go even if we feel like we need treatment. Mental health treatment is kind of similar to the “dental model”, where we’re encouraged to go for check-ups but we really don’t bother until we end up with four cavities or we’re about to turn 25 and lose that sweet parentally-subsidized dental coverage. Thus, when we do go for mental health treatment, the band-aid fix doesn’t always work like it would for a cut or a bruise. Mental health treatment is not an absolute—there are a lot of factors at play that impact the illness trajectory, and the treatment outcomes associated with each individual and their respective difficulties. This leads to unpredictable service use, and more specifically in this case, readmission to inpatient psychiatric services. Readmission to inpatient treatment is an important phenomenon for a number of reasons, mainly due to the fact that inpatient care is super expensive (like 37% of the overall federal health budget for Canada in 2016—the largest portion), and research shows that some people (youth in particular) are better treated in the community through complementary support services, NOT through inpatient care.

So, why are youth being readmitted? What factors contribute to one youth needing repeated admissions for treatment, while another can make do with a single admission?

We decided to look into it. We did some research using provincial administrative data (in other words, data with every youth mental health admission to any New Brunswick hospital from 2003-2013), and our overall readmission stats were pretty consistent with existing research. About 27% of all youth ages 3-19 years old admitted in that time span had at least one readmission, with almost 50% of those readmissions occurring within 90 days of their discharge (aka, the “high-risk” period).

But, why are some youth being readmitted while others aren’t? Well, like I said, lots at play here. First off, some demographic stuff. Research shows that youth in rural areas tend to rely more heavily on inpatient services because of a lack of community care supports, which is partially tied to research that says youth from low socioeconomic (SES) households tend to exhibit more mental health issues. But hold up, because New Brunswick doesn’t fit that bill. Our research actually showed the opposite—youth from non-rural areas with a higher household SES were more likely to be readmitted within 90 days post-discharge. Does this mean we should celebrate the province of New Brunswick as the first ever province to better treat vulnerable populations in comparison to non-vulnerable? Sorry NB, but you’ll have to settle for the existing titles of world’s biggest lobster (you rock Shediac) and world’s biggest axe (in case the lobster gets out of control, smart thinking Nackawic). The issue is definitely more complex than that. What this really tells us is that youth from rural communities in lower SES households are probably more likely to have a difficult time actually obtaining care supports in general (inpatient care included). This could be due to a number of factors connected to rural, low SES living: parents’ erratic work hours, accessibility of services, access to transportation to use those services, financial means to pay for services—all things that may be a non-issue to non-rural, high-SES youth. Low-SES youth in rural areas may very well be “suffering in silence” in some cases. This is supported by looking at overall readmission rates long term, where all SES categories actually account for an equal amount of readmission from 1 year post discharge onward. So, low-SES youth in rural areas aren’t necessarily at a lower risk for readmission, it just takes them longer to get back to the hospital.

What about supportive factors? They absolutely play a role. Youth with a more supportive home environment both before, and after their inpatient stay are at a lower risk of being readmitted. This makes sense, because youth with mental health issues are going to cope with those issues better if they have a strong familial support system behind them. In line with that, we also found that youth who were referred to supportive aftercare services (as in, a clinician or counsellor) were less likely to be readmitted compared to youth who received a referral to typically less-supportive aftercare (as in, law enforcement). It’s really all about support—inpatient care is meant to stabilize a patient, so they can be discharged to community supports that can continue their treatment. If the support system isn’t in place before and following the admission, youths who aren’t sufficiently stabilized may need to return to inpatient care to further their treatment.

Picture baggage claim at the airport after most of the people take their bags. Someone has to pick up those last few bags, but they don’t, so the bags just keep going in and out, around the carousel. All those potential bag picker-uppers are service providers, and the bags are the youths that really need support to get them out of the loop.

And you may wonder, why bother bringing this up before talking about the impact of the diagnosis or treatment? Well, this isn’t like a broken leg. Because mental illnesses are so varied, and symptoms are so diverse (even within specific diagnoses), the impact of other demographic and support factors really play a role in the illness and treatment outcomes, especially when considering the various treatments for any given symptomology. That said, our research showed that youth with chronic mental illnesses (like psychosis) tended to have the highest likelihood of readmission among diagnoses, mainly because the illness requires long-term ongoing care. Also, youth with mood and affective disorders (like anxiety and depression) also had high rates of readmission, but this is partially due to the sheer volume of these cases—they commonly make up the largest portion of youth diagnoses in inpatient care, and in the context of NB, this is no different. Finally, youth with what we call ‘comorbid’ diagnoses (aka, multiple co-existing disorders) were more likely to be readmitted than those with single diagnoses. This is most likely due to the fact that comorbid diagnoses are typically more difficult to treat, given that you’re dealing with interacting symptoms and you may need multiple consultations with a number of different professionals. Overall, the diagnosis does play a role in the likelihood of a youth being readmitted, but we found that supportive and demographic factors predicted a larger amount of the variability in readmission.

What does this all mean? Well, it means we have some work to do to flesh out what exactly these results are telling us. Future research needs to more closely examine the relationship between different supportive factors and treatment outcomes, and we need to get a better idea of how geographic location and SES play into care-seeking behaviours. Policy-wise, these results point to a need for potential modified service delivery in rural areas, and an emphasis on post-discharge supports. Super easy, right?


Tags: Psychiatric care, Readmission


Let's Talk About Sex (Robots)

Guest written by: Lauryn Vander Molen

If you have been online in the past few months you may have seen the latest media craze; sex robots. Sex robots have proliferated in visibility, from the 2010 documentary “My Sex Robot” that has now been released on Netflix, to the recent articles published on the CBC, the New York Times, and many other news (and “alternative news”) websites. While many of these articles have attempted to explore both sides of the debate (shout out to the CBC for consulting with actual researchers), others have taken a different approach, disregarding science and instead focusing on condemning the “pervs” and “sex-crazed sickos” who are interested in sex robots.

Whatever your opinion on the matter, sex robots are a fascinating, polarizing, and lucrative market, and they are likely here to stay. In fact, sex robots are set to become a multi-million dollar industry, with robots on RealDoll.com currently going for upwards of $15, 000 USD. Given their meteoric rise to public prominence, pundits on both sides of the debate have much to say. For some, sex robots are the latest aberrant act “sickos” can engage in before committing acts of sexual violence against humans. In contrast, others see the possibility of enhancing sex-offender treatment, prevention, or the opportunity for sexual contact with those who would otherwise be unable to achieve it (e.g., elderly individuals who are confined to their homes, individuals who struggle with social interaction but desire sexual relationships).

The implications for such robots may be far-reaching. Take the recent case in Newfoundland where a man is on trial for possessing child pornography, mailing obscene material, and smuggling and possession of prohibited goods because he ordered a “childlike” sex doll from China[1]. Whether the use of this sex doll will result in future sexual offenses is debatable, this landmark case pits the rights of the individual to act on their sexual desires without harming a human against public fears of potential child abusers, and leads us to pose the questions: should sex robots become mainstream and easily accessible? Will individuals choosing to engage in sexual acts with such robots face similar charges in the future? Are sex robots really harmful, or might they be beneficial? And why are people so obsessed with what others do in the bedroom?

To answer these questions we must look to the research, which, unfortunately, is sorely lacking. However, when considering paraphilias (i.e., intense sexual arousal, interest, urges, or fantasies toward atypical or unusual targets, such as pedophilia or fetishism) more broadly, it isdifficult to say if individuals who engage in these sexual acts are causing harm to themselves, and research is conflicting. For example, sadism and masochism, when practiced between consenting adults, have actually been linked with higher education, income, wellbeing, and healthier sexual functioning[2]. On the other hand, some paraphilias have been linked with both sexual and general violence[3]. It is important to note here that there are distinct but related categories of paraphilias: paraphilic interests occur when there are intense urges or fantasies, when the individual acts on their urges or fantasies they are said to be engaging in a paraphilic behaviour, and when a paraphilia harms others or causes distress or harm to the individual with the interest, the individual is classified as having a paraphilic disorder[4]. From research to date, we cannot definitively say that those with paraphilic interests, those who engage in paraphilic behaviours and, by extension, those who are interested in using sex robots, are going to be adversely affected by acting on their interest, or are going to be more or less likely to engage in sexual violence with real people.

Until more research is conducted it seems irresponsible to stigmatize, ostracize, and persecute those with atypical sexual interests. In fact, research has shown that the stigma faced by those with atypical sexual interests can be extremely harmful, leading to persecution, feelings of shame, attempts to hide their sexual interests, and mental health problems including elevated stress and poorer emotional functioning [5]. Furthermore, it has been suggested that those with the most stigmatized interests, such as pedophilia, are more likely to offend and fail to seek treatment if they are ostracized from society, in part because of the intense shame they may feel and the lack of access to important social or therapeutic supports.[6]

Atypical sexual interests are the rule, not the exception, with some research finding rates of some atypical sexual interests prevalent in as many as 84% of the general population.[7] So, the next time you are outraged by so-called “pervs” who are going to commit acts of sexual violence, think twice; chances are you or someone you know has an atypical interest. Sex robots may be a fascinating (or disturbing) and mind-boggling sexual preference for some, but for others it is simply a variation of the weird and diverse world of human sexuality. Let’s wait and see what the research has to say before jumping to pre-emptive, emotionally- and morally-driven conclusions.

[1] Payette, 2017

[2] Pascoal, Cardoso, & Henriques, 2015; Sandnabba, Santtila, Alison, & Nordling, 2002; Wismeijer & van Assen, 2013

[3] Baur et al., 2016; Bradford & Ahmed, 2014; Chan, Beauregard, & Myers, 2015; Lodi-Smith, Shepard, & Wagner, 2014

[4] American Psychiatric Association, 2014

[5] First, 2014; Jahnke, Imhoff, & Hoyer, 2015; Jahnke, Schmidt, Geradt, & Hoyer, 2015; Wakefield, 2011; Wright, 2010, 2014

[6] Jahnke, Imhoff, & Hoyer, 2015

[7] Joyal et al., 2015


Tags: Human Sexuality, Sex robots, Paraphilias, Pedophilia, Popular media


“2 weeks on, 1 week off”: Studying How Couples Adjust to a Fly-In-Fly-Out (FIFO) Lifestyle

Guest written by: Kathryn Malcom 

Living in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, whenever I would meet new people, or get updates on former classmates/friends, it was almost inevitable that I’d hear about “so and so [insert name here] working out west”. “Working out west” started to feel about as common as other uniquely Maritime sayings. Whenever I would hear about people working “out west”, I didn’t really have a clear idea of what that looked like and found myself, perhaps somewhat naively and a bit ignorantly, picturing farming work. Instead, I would learn, working “out west”, for many of my acquaintances, meant being employed and living at a work camp. Often this employment was in the oil field industry, where their roster schedule would involve intense periods of work, work followed by a reprieve and time away from their employment setting. For some of these workers, their permanent address would be in one province (e.g., Nova Scotia), but they would work in another province (e.g., Alberta).

I would come to find out that there is a term used for people who work this compressed employment schedule, where they spend a specific (and frequently intense) amount of time at their place of employment, followed by a period off from work: fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) workers, or drive-in-drive-out (DIDO) workers. I would also start to learn that there is a bit of research on this population – in 2011, approximately 3% of the paid Canadian workforce was employed in this type of schedule, and many of these workers came from the Atlantic provinces (Morissette & Qiu, 2015). FIFO workers report both pros and cons of their job. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many FIFO workers report the biggest advantage of this type of work is the financial benefit, followed by the freedom of being able to have a long period of time off (Blackman et al., 2014). Disadvantages of this lifestyle include the time spent away from home, and the long hours and fatigue associated with working such a compressed schedule (Blackman et al., 2014).

What remains less studied in this field is the impact that FIFO work has on romantic relationships, and how couples manage this type of schedule. I always wondered – so Johnny is working “out west” (I use ‘Johnny’ purposefully here, because it’s mainly men that engage in FIFO work), but Mary lives back home in Cape Breton, and Johnny returns every rotation – how does that work? How does the couple maintain their relationship? Do they talk on the phone all the time? And, what do they do when they are back together? Is it the normal “routine”? Or do they do different things because Johnny is home? What happens if there are kids in the picture? And, how do they maintain intimacy? Although there are a couple of studies that have assessed relationship satisfaction in FIFO couples, most do not go into detail on all the relationship questions that I want to know about!

So – here comes the plug for my research – all of this is what lead me to my current Ph.D. dissertation proposal. I will be examining the romantic relationship maintenance factors of couples that are involved in FIFO work. In order to tap into the unique “on-off-on-off” roster schedule, I will be following FIFO workers and their romantic partners over a period of two work cycles and asking them to fill out questionnaires about their relationship, at various points in time (both when they are at home and away at work). I am really excited about this research, and I think it has some great implications, ones that we (my supervisor, Scott, and I) would like to share with couples/families who are in this type of work schedule. If “working out west” is part of the Maritime vocabulary (which I would argue, it is), then I think it is our duty as researchers to provide helpful tips and strategies to FIFO couples and families.


Tags: family, FIFO, romantic relationships, dissertation


First Time Having Sex: Why It's Not What We Expect, and Why That Matters

Guest written by: Camille Garceau

If you think back to the first time you had sex, you might remember that it was not exactly what you had expected. Perhaps the duration, whether short or long, surprised you; perhaps it did not feel as good as you thought it would; perhaps you did not really want to have sex at all and you did anyway. If any of this rings a bell, you are far from being alone. Research has shown that youth approach their first time having sex with expectations that are seldom met. Sexually inexperienced youth tend to expect that their first time having sex will be a memorable, life-altering experience that willinvolve romance, pleasure, communication with their partner, and safe sex practices. In reality, however, many report that their first time having sex was less pleasurable,more painful, more casual, and involved less communication and sexual protection than they had expected.

In the interviews that I analyzed for my Honour’s thesis, young adults speaking about their earliest sexual experiences indicated that the presence or absence of discrepancy between expected and actual first sexual intercourse influenced how they approached sexual experiences later in their lives. Participants whose expectations had been met sought out similar experiences afterward. Those whose expectations had not been met (the majority of the sample) either sought out different sexual experiences or decided to avoid subsequent sexual experiences altogether. The small number of participants who were still avoiding sexual or romantic relationships at the time of the interview reported experiencing negative emotions such as fear, sadness, loneliness, and resignation. This suggests that differences between expected and actual first intercourse experiences can impact young people’s future well being.

To understand why young people’s expectations of first intercourse are often lofty or downright unrealistic, we have to look at the world that surrounds them. In general, people form expectations of social encounters (including sexual ones) by using memories of past similar experiences as well as by watching others. Sexually inexperienced youth, however, cannot rely on memories of past sexual experiences, simply because they have not had any yet. They are therefore completely reliant on outside sources of information for guidance. According to research, such sources include television, pornography, magazines, peers, and family members. Unfortunately, some of those sources are not always very good at conveying accurate and realistic information about first intercourse (or sex in general) to inexperienced young people. On television, for example, sex is usually shown as spontaneous, passionate, and overwhelmingly pleasurable, with oohhh’s and aahhh’s, heavy breathing, and cries of ecstasy. It is not surprising that youths’ expectations of first intercourse are so high! Because peers have a huge influence on each other, it is important for friends to be open with each other about their uncertainties and to not pressure each other to do more than they are comfortable. In addition, it is crucial for parents and educators to have honest conversations with youth about sex well before first intercourse. Although it is impossible to completely shield children and adolescents from unrealistic media portrayals of sexual experiences, efforts to correct misconceptions through open communication could go a long way.



Tags: Initial Sexual Experiences, Human Sexuality


Increasing the Odds of Getting Into a Graduate Program in Clinical Psychology

It’s that time of year again, when applicants are finding out the results to their quests to pursue a PhD in Clinical Psychology. As a faculty member, it is an exciting time as well—after looking at applications, interviewing potential students, and helping to make decisions about how our program will be shaped in the coming year—we invite individuals to join us for 5 or more years. Every year, however, I see the same right things and the same mistakes that applicants make (sometimes the same mistakes by the same people year after year). With this said, I began thinking of the advice I would give someone who has officially decided to pursue this path. I have come up with a list that is not intended to be in any order or comprehensive. When one considers the ratio of the applicant pool to the number who are accepted, it can be somewhat random in selecting one great applicant from several other top applicants.

  1. Start early (aim for the summer of the year before applications are due) and find out as much information about the schools, the faculty who are available to supervise, and the opportunities that are available during and after the PhD. In terms of faculty selection, one should contact faculty to find out if s/he is considering taking someone for the following year and what projects s/he is or will be working on in the next little while. In doing so, you should be somewhat knowledgeable about the person’s area and make sure that it is in the realm of your interests. I have received emails noting that person X is extremely interested in working with me because of my focus on autism disorder (I do not study autism). I think a good email noting your strengths and why there is a general fit with the faculty member (again, make sure that you have correctly identified the fit) can be important. Why is it important? It can work out in 3 good ways. First, you can find out whether the person is or is not taking a student. This will help you in deciding to apply to certain programs and to whom you will tailor your application. If I say I am not considering a student for next year, it will likely be wasted if you note why you should be accepted to our program because of the perfect fit with me. Second, although I will not make decisions based on an email you send, it leaves a trace that you are doing your homework early and that you are potentially interested in working with me. When it comes time to selecting from the applicant pool, I do a quick search through my emails to see who, of my top candidates, had expressed previous interest. Again, because acceptance into programs seems somewhat arbitrary, every little detail can be used in your favor. Finally, and perhaps the most important reason why you should email is that if you tailor your emails correctly, I may give you important hints about what I will be working on (and perhaps if I have funding that goes along with certain projects, which may be helpful in supporting you in graduate school). You can then use this information in deciding if this would be of interest and, if so, in tailoring your personal statement to closely match what I will be working on. As a specific example, I am currently doing work in three major areas: early sexual experiences, youth access to mental health services, and family communication patterns. If you look at my publications, there will be much more of a forensic focus (e.g., juvenile sexual offenders). Like all people, my interests and patterns change. I have a number of applicants who seem to do all of the right things by contacting me and finding out what I am working on. However, when I get to their personal statement in their eventual application, I read that they are interested in working with me because of my focus on forensics. While I still have interests and work in forensics, my major directions (and funding) should give some clue that a student who is interested in studying psychopathy within an institutional setting will not rise to the top of my list, no matter how good are their academic credentials.

  2. On the topic of academic credentials, every faculty member seems to weight things differently. GRE scores and previous grades are generally seen as important, but it gets more specific. In terms of GRE scores, some professors focus more on the verbal score (as an indicator of your writing ability), others on quantitative (as an indication of the complexity of statistics that you might be able to undertake in graduate school), and still others on analytical (as an indicator of your abilities to think critically). The best thing you can do is to perform well across all three sections. However, it is not always possible and can be somewhat forgivable if you stand out in other ways or if the section that you did not do well in is not weighted as highly by the specific advisor who is interested in you. Grades are important, but they are also examined in context. Where did you get your degree? What kind of courses did you take? What were your grades in relation to the median for each course? I personally find it the most difficult to determine great grades from good grades (and cumulative GPAs from various institutions can spin my head). As such, it is one thing I do not emphasize as highly as GRE scores, CVs, personal statements, or reference letters. I do look, however, with an eye toward at least two things: a) whether there is a fit between what you say you’re interested in and the courses you have taken, and b) how you would fare in internal and external funding competitions relative to other applicants.

  3. CVs are important. They tell a story of what you have accomplished. If I see a strong record of work in research labs (ideally, more than one or intensively in one) and publications and presentations, that begins to set an applicant apart from the pool. Specifically, if an applicant has been involved in research labs for 3 of their undergraduate years, it suggests that going to graduate school was not an afterthought and that conducting research is something the person doesn’t at least mind doing. If you have the chance to present research findings, or even more so, publishing a paper (e.g., honour’s thesis), I would suggest doing so. This is the general commodity of advisors and they often get very excited at the possibility that their next student will be productive. People have asked whether getting clinical experience is important for a graduate school application. The answer is yes, but typically only a little bit. I would like to see that there is some clinical interest and volunteer experience, but I do not feel that you have to spend all of your time getting this experience (this is one thing that you will get plenty of in graduate school).

  4. Your letters of reference are tricky because you have no idea what your referees are saying about you. I can say that most referees are typically saying nice things about you. However, the focus is in the details. “I think this is an applicant who should be strongly considered for admission to your graduate program” (we strongly consider all applicants, so this is not hard to do) and “This is the best person with whom I have worked in the last 10 years, and I believe that your program would benefit from having her in it” are two very nice statements. Which one would you lean toward? It also gets hard because some letter writers say nice things about everyone while others really don’t have much nice to say about anyone (at least it does not come across in their letters). Well then, how are you to know what kind of letter writer is the person you are asking? You might not. For someone big in a particular field and who does not have a lot of time to write letters, s/he may not come across as super positive. However, this may be fine. When I read letters, I usually, although not always, get a sense of whether the letter is succinct (i.e., this is a really good letter from X) or if the opinion of this person about the applicant is less then super positive. What may be in your control in getting your reference letters together is in being the best you can be (volunteer in research labs, take on extra work, take criticism and feedback well, deal with stress in mature ways, get along with people). That way, you will be pretty certain that your letters rise to the top. Also, when you ask people to write letters for you, select those who know you best. Sure, you can ask the professor whose class of 100+ students you took 3 years ago. However, what can s/he say about you besides the A+ you received? Furthermore, if I were to request that referees write a letter for me, I might give them an “out”, or a pass. I might send him or her an e-mail rather than cornering him or her in the hallway. In addition, I might phrase my request carefully:

    Dear Professor X,

    I will be applying to graduate school in the fall and I was wondering if you would be able to write me a strong letter of reference. I know you are very busy, so I would understand if you cannot at this time.



    If the response is an astounding, “Absolutely!” then I think you can be confident in the letter. If you receive something noting that they are not really familiar with your work or do not have a lot to say, I would take that as a hint.

  5. Your personal statement is incredibly important. You should start early on this and it should ideally be crafted for each program to which you are applying. Do not cut corners here! I would rather see a thrown-together CV than a boiler plate personal statement. This personal statement suggests whether you can write (if you cannot write something about you and that you had endless time on, how might you fare in graduate school about a detailed research question). It also gives an indication of your knowledge about the program and relevant faculty members’ interests (see Point #1 above) as well as your work ethic (it is very easy to distinguish a tailored essay that took a lot of time from one that filled in the blank for graduate program X).

  6. If you should reach the interview stage, do your homework on the individuals who are interviewing you. Also, brush up on why this program would be your ideal choice. Come up with lots of questions to ask. Identify potential research questions (i.e., things you might study) but at the same time express openness to explore other options of mutual interest. Be able to talk about why you are choosing a career path in clinical psychology or applying to a particular program. Be able to discuss in a coherent and succinct way the work that you have done. Most importantly, be strongly versed in your potential advisors’ research. Keep in mind that you may have widdled the ratio down from 1 in 30 to 1 in 3 or 4. The interview is important and can further move you firmly in either the accept or the decline column. If you happen to know the advisor to whom you are applying (i.e., the interviewer), treat that person as if you did not already know him or her. Treat this as a fully professional experience. Follow up the interview with a nice note indicating your appreciation for taking the time and your genuine interest in pursuing graduate studies at said program.

With all of these points made, you might be left scratching your head thinking that everything in your application is important and that I have not given you anything. Yes, everything is important. However, I keep seeing the same easily avoidable mistakes pop up. Surely, given the somewhat arbitrary nature of selecting applicants, you would be well served to go through the list I have provided and check whether your application fully satisfies these points.

As a word of hope or caution, not getting into a program should not be taken as a mark against you and may not be an indication that you should stop pursuing your career goals. I would see how far you got (getting to the interview stage at several schools with no acceptances would suggest something different than not getting interviews). Do you need to separate you from your undergraduate grades? Perhaps getting more experience or a master’s degree (and doing well) would help. Are your GRE scores on the lower side? Perhaps you should spend time studying so that you can increase those scores. Do you not have enough experiences? Maybe you go back to your undergraduate supervisor and pursue publishing your honour’s thesis. Alternatively, you could get other paid or volunteer research experience after your undergraduate degree.

With all of this said, there may be times when you should choose another path (applying to the same program 4 years in a row without getting accepted may be an indicator, at least for that school)—one more suitable to you. This is great to learn, and I would be quick to pursue other great options.

All the best in pursuing your program of choice!


Tags: Applying to graduate school, clinical psychology


Bridging the Gap Between Community and Academia: The Role of Participatory Action Research

Guest written by: Camille Garceau

Academic researchers are a strange breed. They sometimes wear funky cardigan sweaters, bowties, or white lab coats (or maybe just chemists?); carry around red pens and clip-boards; use words like “datum” and “generalizability,” conduct experiments – ahem, studies – for reasons that are usually not made explicitly clear, and publish papers that often remain unread. Most people don’t have anything against them. After all, the majority of researchers are smart, passionate about what they do, and have nothing but good intentions. No, really, they seem all right. It’s just hard to figure out what it is they really do.   

The gap between academic researchers and the populations they study has been discussed by various thinkers and, well, (you guessed it) researchers. The “ivory tower” analogy is often used to illustrate the extent to which research can be disconnected from the community in which it takes place. Researchers drop in, take a look around, conduct their studies, identify what they believe are the main reasons for doing the research and what is so problematic with the previous research (thus, justifying their own methods), and then provide future directions for someone else to handle.

There are many problems associated with the aforementioned approach. First, this traditional model has the researcher in its very centre. As I’m sure you can imagine, having such an intimidating figure around is far from ideal if, let’s say, a project’s goal is to empower the members of a community who don’t usually make their voices heard. Who would want to feel like that shy kid in a 5th grade class who finally raised his hand to give an answer, only to have Mr. Brown roll his eyes and sigh in utter irritation “Oh, Timmy… Anyone else?” Yeah, exactly. No one. Me neither, by the way.

Second, the project designed by the researcher (and the researcher only) might simply not be very good. Truth is, as intelligent and educated as they are, academics are not always in tune with what is going on in particular communities. The questionnaires they develop or select, for example, might not be entirely relevant in certain cases. Wording may need to be changed to accommodate languages and customs. Different recruitment methods might have to be employed.  And sometimes the whole premise of the project might have to be re-examined because, well, to put it bluntly… nobody cares (sorry— it had to be said).

So… What now? Is this it? Is there no way out? Are we doomed to live in a world where research and real life form as homogeneous a mix as oil and water? This does not need to be the case. Methodologies that challenge this somewhat antiquated model of research continue to gain in popularity, shake things up, and create meaningful change. One of those methods is called Participatory Action Research, or PAR for short.

PAR consists of hiring a relevant stakeholder to conduct single or multiple phases of an experiment. Those stakeholders can range from local community members to service providers to local politicians, depending on the project. They might be involved in design, participant recruitment, presentation of results – any task that the researcher deems better suited for someone with greater local and cultural knowledge. An example of PAR that has been used in our Youth and Family Research Lab was hiring young adults previously deemed “at risk” for homelessness to recruit and interview homeless adolescents as part of a study. It’s hard to imagine those same adolescents being willing to confide in a bespectacled professor wearing a collared shirt and a nice watch… Awkward. That is, in fact, one of the main strengths of PAR: by including community members to be involved in very direct ways, researchers can greatly improve the reach and relevancy of their project. Let’s face it: professors may be smart, but there are some things they’ll just never be able to get (and even if they once “got it”, being in the ivory tower for any length of time changes their perspective substantially). Conducting research in this manner allows universities to establish constructive relationships with the communities it studies. The communication begins to flow in both directions. Trust sets in. Little by little, the two sides come out of their shell.

While I do have a soft spot for it (can you tell?) and truly believe that it is a valuable and exciting way of doing research, PAR is not a panacea. It is not enough to completely turn around the future of academic research and it certainly cannot single-handedly rebuild its tarnished reputation. After all, this methodology has been around for a while and the research-academia gap still exists. But the gap is smaller than it’s been. It’s narrower. It’s shallower. And slowly, one brick at a time, it might ultimately be inclusive and engaging methodologies like PAR that finally erect that bridge.


Tags: Participatory Action Research, Academia, family, research vs real life, homeless


Does Kate Middleton Wear The ‘Halo’?

Guest written by: Stephanie Richardson

Last week, Kate Middleton (also known as the princess with great hair and amazing fashion sense) released a public service announcement video supporting children’s mental health.

Watch the video here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/17/kate-middleton-childrens-_n_6699266.html

The video caught my eye, not only because it is in my area of research interest, but because I have yet to see her speak! After some investigation, I have found that Kate has rarely given interviews or speeches, so I was curious with what she had to say about mental illness.

Before watching the video, I’ll admit, I was slightly worried.

Will she talk about something that isn’t backed up by research? Will she give the wrong message to the would-be millions of viewers? Will her status prevent her from really understanding the commoner? 

Known as the ‘halo effect’ in psychology, our overall impression of a person influences how we think about their character. Since we find famous people attractive and successful, we tend to perceive them as intelligent.  Research has shown that people “can’t help but follow health advice from celebrities”.  We trust famous people, even when they are giving advice that is outside their area of expertise, and even if what they are saying is not backed up by research.

After watching the video, I must say, I was extremely happy! Kate’s claims are backed up by science, and she brings up many important points… mental health care should begin in childhood, mental health is as important as physical health, and school-based care is vital….

Reading the comments below the video on YouTube and other sources that posted the video, I worry that the message was being lost by some viewers. Many of the comments focused on the tone of her voice and the fact that people have never actually heard her speak before. Other comments focused on the way her hands were moving awkwardly as she spoke and the fact that ‘she doesn’t look pregnant’.

Despite the unrelated comments on the video, I hope the ‘halo effect’ applies to Kate, and that her message does not fall upon deaf ears. Childhood and youth mental illness is a very serious issue in the UK as well as Canada, and it is essential that children receive the care they need and that the stigma surrounding mental illness is reduced and, perhaps even one day, erased completely.


Tags: family, mental health, Kate Middleton, halo effect, role model, young child, youth


Being The Parent of a Young Child

Being the parent of a young child, I often keep an eye out for ways to make sense of my experience as a parent. I am sure as my children get older, the issues will change and I will continue to seek out articles, conversations, comics, etc. that speak thoughtfully to similar experiences. Not too long ago, I came across an hysterical clip of Michael McIntyre’s stand-up comedy sketch exploring the differences between couples who have children and those who do not (see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/18/michael-mcintyre-people-with-no-kids-dont-know_n_4295847.html). I was in stitches over it, purely because it rang true. When showing the clip to a family member who did not yet have children, she wondered why I thought it was so funny.

It made me realize that differences in perspective really affect how we experience the world. It also makes me realize that, despite a formal education and years of professional experience, it is important to understand peoples’ perspectives in order to understand their experiences and behaviors. Being a parent is hard work! Although it would be easy to disagree with another parents’ actions, it is always important to remember that previous experiences and current context play huge roles in how we act as parents. Thus, before you look in contempt at a person who doesn’t seem to have a handle on his or her child, remember that it would be very easy to find yourself in the same situation. If you find yourself in a ridiculous situation with your own child, remember that there are others who have been in your shoes and some people who have even made a career out of poking fun of the reality of being a parent of a young child.


Tags: parenting, family, young child, childless vs parent, funny clip, parent struggle

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