Dec. 10, 2021

Research projects brighten lives and boost health of kids during COVID

New federal funding will support researchers as they address mental well-being of children, youth, and their families in Canada
David Nicholas
David Nicholas, professor in the Faculty of Social Work. Dale MacMillan

The COVID-19 pandemic has been tough on kids. They haven’t been able to do all the normal things that make them happy. They haven’t been able to play organized sports, have playdates or sleepovers with their friends, or visit their grandparents. Instead they have had to adjust to virtual learning or restricted in-person classes and in many cases, their socialization may have been mostly through virtual visits, social media or online gaming.

The public health measures and pandemic restrictions have taken a toll on the mental health of children and youth. The situation may be even worse for kids with chronic health conditions, who are at higher risk of serious disease from COVID-19, and who may have had their routine care interrupted because of pandemic restrictions.

The good news is that Canadian kids, aged five to 11, now have access to the COVID-19 vaccine. By getting vaccinated, kids will be protected from the virus, which may alleviate fears for both kids and their parents. However, not a lot of research has focused on understanding the mental and emotional impact of the pandemic on children.

Funding supports 7 research projects

Fortunately, with the support of funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), researchers from across the country will examine the stressful and traumatic effects of COVID-19 on Canadian children, youth, and their families. The results of this research may help bring joy back into the lives of many children and make sure they get the care they need to stay healthy.

Seven UCalgary projects received over $1 million in CIHR Operating Grants as part of the Dec. 9 announcement: five for research on understanding and mitigating impacts of COVID-19 on children, youth and families, and one for research on vaccine confidence. Please see complete list of recipients at the bottom of this article.

“Better understanding and mitigating the impacts of COVID-19 on our communities continues to be a priority,” says Dr. William Ghali, vice-president (research).

This funding from CIHR supports projects that will shed light on vaccine confidence and the impact of COVID-19 on youth and families, two areas that will benefit greatly from the commitment and focus of our researchers.

Taking care of kids with chronic illnesses

One researcher who received CIHR funding to evaluate the stressful and traumatic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on children, youth, and their families is Dr. David Nicholas, PhD. As a professor and associate dean of research and partnerships in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary, he’ll specifically examine how health services during the pandemic have impacted paediatric patients with a range of health problems from different ethnic, cultural, social, and economic backgrounds.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, how should we decide what’s essential care when a difficult balance needs to be created between public health safety, and patient- and family-centred care?” asks Nicholas. “Decision-making pathways need to be put in place so that experiences caused by this pandemic and those in the future will be less challenging for children who have pre-existing health conditions and developmental disabilities, such as heart problems, asthma, sickle cell disease, and autism.”

Public health safety and patient care during a pandemic could be enhanced through the development of a plan that mitigates potential challenges related to clinical support for paediatric patients.

“The plan could be created by a group of key representatives who have clear information about steps that need to be taken to optimize care during a pandemic,” says Nicholas. “This group would consist of those who can address various areas of health concerns for children and their families, as well as public health representatives.”

Planning for a pandemic will also need to address short- and long-term mental health implications, as well as changes to health services.

In order to create guidelines for the plan’s ethical decision-making and support of patients and families, we must also consider the mental health strain that has emerged in our population at large, and challenges faced by health-care providers who have sought to ensure services to all during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- David Nicholas

During his study, Nicholas and his team will collect data regarding the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of children, youth, and family participants through use of interviews conducted at clinics and health units in Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia.

“The intent of our research is to rapidly translate information into practical guidelines that can be used by the Canadian and international public,” says Nicholas. “By listening to the impacts of this pandemic on children, youth, and their families, we will communicate our findings to health-care providers and hospitals' leaders, as well as policy-makers, and family members so that pandemic planning and responsiveness can be developed that will ultimately lead to positive change.”

UCalgary projects receiving CIHR Operating Grants

Understanding and mitigating impacts of COVID-19 on children, youth and families

  • Dr. Catherine Lebel, PhD (Cumming School of Medicine): Perinatal Psychological Distress During the COVID-19 Pandemic and the Effects on Infant Brain Development During the First Year of Life
  • Dr. Nicole Letourneau, PhD (Faculty of Nursing): Epigenetic Impacts of COVID-19 Pandemic Chronic Stress on Youth: A Prospective Investigation of DNA methylation
  • Dr. Sheri Madigan, PhD (Faculty of Arts): Leveraging a Longitudinal Canadian Cohort to Study the Course of Parent-Youth Mental Health Before, During, and After the COVID-19 Pandemic
  • Dr. Amy Metcalfe, PhD (Cumming School of Medicine): Impact of COVID-Related Restrictions on Maternal and Infant Health
  • Dr. David Nicholas, PhD (Faculty of Social Work): Examining the Long-term Psychosocial and Health Consequences of COVID-19 on Children with Health Vulnerabilities and their Families
  • Dr. Jennifer Zwicker, PhD (Faculty of Kinesiology, School of Public Policy): Nothing Without Us: Towards Inclusive, Equitable Policy Strategies for Youth with Disabilities and Their Families Post-COVID19

Vaccine confidence

  • Dr. Myles Leslie, PhD (School of Public Policy): Improving Vaccine Confidence with Better Clinical Conversations: Expanding and evaluating a dynamic, clinician-driven, online guide for Canadian primary care

Story republished by permission from Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

This prestigious group represents the breadth and depth of the research and expertise at the University of Calgary, representing a number of the institutes within the Cumming School of Medicine, including the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI), the Owerko Centre at ACHRI, the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute, the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI), The Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research & Education at the HBI, the Libin Cardiovascular Institute, the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health, the O’Brien Institute for Public Health and the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases.



Child Health and Wellness
The University of Calgary is driving science and innovation to transform the health and wellbeing of children and families. Led by the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, top scientists across the campus are partnering with Alberta Health Services, the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation, and our community to create a better future for children through research.