Laurier PhD student recognized for mental health research

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On May 7, in recognition of Mental Health Week, the province of Ontario and the Hilary M. Weston Scholarship recognized the efforts of two graduate students — including third-year Wilfrid Laurier University PhD candidate Jennifer Scarborough, for their work on mental health research.

Scarborough has been at Laurier since 2003, completing her undergraduate degree and a masters of social work. 

She returned to get her PhD as a student of the faculty of social work and has spent a number of years working with children and adults with eating disorders.

In a government of Ontario news release, the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration wrote that Scarborough is being recognized for her work “developing inclusive practice guidelines for caregivers of children with eating disorders.”

Scarborough’s research targets the field of paediatric eating disorders and specifically works with children and families who struggle with these issues. Currently, her research focuses on mothers who have a child with an eating disorder.

“The reality is — who actually shows up for treatments, who is the one actually doing the bulk — is typically mothers. I think in research we’ve left out the gender and we’ve just said ‘parents,” Scarborough said. 

“When we [just] call it ‘parents’ we’re not really getting an accurate portrayal of who is doing [the] supporting of their child through treatment.”

Scarborough’s interest in the field of mental health and eating disorders comes from both personal and work experience. They constitute a specifically worrisome aspect of mental health concerns that she hopes to tackle. 

Scarborough suggests that mental health services in Ontario need to evolve, to create a more streamlined and organic progress to deal with the various collective issues that children and adults are facing.

“I’ve had families and friends who have eating disorder issues or eating issues. I have family members themselves who have had to look after children who have significant health complications,” she said.

“Depending on the definition of recovery, depending on what stats you’re reading, eating disorders can only have a 50 percent recovery rate at its best.”

Scarborough’s research hopes to get fathers more involved in supporting eating disorder treatment, as opposed to just mothers. 

“I felt that one of the pieces that was missing — in terms of hopefully engaging fathers in supporting mothers more through this — would be identifying what realities these parents are going through,” Scarborough said. 

“We really don’t know what the experience of being a mother is when you have a child with an eating disorder and the demands that are placed upon you.” 

“My hope is that — by researching this area and looking at the realities mothers face — we can find a way to better support mothers and hopefully engage fathers more in the treatment process.”

Scarborough is optimistic for mental health care services in Ontario, directed both at eating disorders and mental health in general, but has greater expectations. 

“I think we’re doing the best we can with what we have, but what we have is not enough.”

She recognizes the efforts of the mental health care system, but describes that it often produces a “whack-a-mole” type effect — targeting specific issues and causing other related problems to occur.

“Eating disorders are co-morbid issues,” said Scarborough. “We’re [also] seeing depression, anxiety — a lot of these kids and adults are coming in with trauma, whether it be sexual assault or other traumas.”

“People are trying to help an eating disorder … the eating disorder symptoms go down, [because] we targeted those, but other symptoms such as depression, anxiety — behaviour associated with trauma — increase.”

Scarborough suggests that mental health services in Ontario need to evolve, to create a more streamlined and organic progress to deal with the various collective issues that children and adults are facing. 

“We need a more integrative, holistic way of helping these kids instead of just shipping them off to little silos that say ‘here’s where depression goes, here’s where anxiety goes, here’s where an eating disorder goes,’” Scarborough said. 

“We really need collaborative, integrative, seamless care for families and children.”

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