Dr. Frank Elgar
Dr. Frank Elgar

A recent article on CBC News states that according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada an estimated 1.2 million Canadian children and youth are affected by mental illness, yet only about 20% receive treatment. This sobering statistic is not lost on Dr. Frank Elgar. “If you want to promote mental health in Canada, we need to start by looking at social inequalities and mental health in childhood,” says Dr. Elgar, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Social Inequalities in Child Health.

Dr. Elgar, has been in the news quite a bit recently regarding his study that showed the positive effects that family dinners have on dealing with cyberbullying. His research focuses on links between income inequality, social capital and population health and the effects of financial stress and parental mental illness on child health outcomes.

“We know that many chronic health problems in adulthood have roots in early childhood experiences, says Dr. Elgar, who is also an Associate Professor jointly appointed to McGill’s Institute for Health and Social Policy and Department of Psychiatry, based at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute. “It is the cumulative effects, the grind of being in a low income group for example makes everything more difficult, and effects parenting, family dynamics, to name but a couple.”

After receiving his PhD in psychology from Dalhousie University, Dr. Elgar worked in academia and government in Canada and Wales prior to joining McGill.  Of his position at McGill, Dr. Elgar says that he is “fortunate to work in policy and mental health institutes and to look beyond studying individual traits and behaviours to factors like schools and socioeconomic settings and to see how they intersect. Mixing child development and social epidemiology is an interesting place to be as a researcher.”

Dr. Elgar notes that he has been studying school bullying for a few years now. He cites a major international project of which he is a part, the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC). An initiative of the World Health Organization, the HBSC involves a cross-national survey issued every four years in 43 countries in Europe and North America in order to gain insight into young people’s well-being, health behaviours and their social context.

“One interesting finding from the HBSC is the contextual effects of income inequality on school bullying,” says Dr. Elgar. “Turns out, income differences between the rich and poor are a good predictor of the social distance up and down the social ladder, and the consequences of inequality show up in measures of school climate, adolescent health, and school bullying.”

And yet, as much insight has been gained through these studies, Dr. Elgar notes that there is much work to be done to make strides in understanding and being able to combat both the socioeconomic and other factors that contribute to childhood mental health issues.

“I feel like we are just scratching the surface in this research,” says Dr. Elgar. “The big question is what policy leaders will work to promote health and reduce health inequalities early in life.”

October 9, 2014