Fostering resilience through meaningful participation

How new research empowered youth in the mental health system during the pandemic

Detail from a mask created by a youth researcher to answer the question: “Show how you see children and youth described to have mental health issues."

Photo: Maria Liegghio

There has been much discussion about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of children and youth. Often missing from these conversations are the many ways in which young people found strength during objectively stressful and trying times.

Understanding this resilience and its contributors is the focus of new research by Maria Liegghio, a SSHRC-funded researcher and an associate professor at York University’s School of Social Work. When completed, her work will help inform how social institutions support young people during crises and through postpandemic recovery.

“With more insight into the protective factors children and youth have within their families, communities and societies, we can devise better supports and systems to help them ‘bounce forward’ through tough times,” Liegghio says.

Persevering through the pandemic

Liegghio and her team set out to identify the social nature, influence and impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the resilience of children, youth and their families. Their research also focused on how institutions and systems offering support—mental health organizations, educational institutions, child welfare and protective services, and police forces—fared during the pandemic and pivoted their services to foster resilience.

As provinces that faced the highest rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths, Quebec and Ontario were selected for comparison, with analysis at the local and regional levels in Gatineau, Ottawa and Peel. As a component of the project, the researchers invited psychiatrized youth (that is, ones involved in the mental health system) to join research advisory teams—first in Peel, with plans to form another team in Quebec—to help interview caregivers and service providers, as well as to recruit child and youth mental health workers.

The project is still underway, but early findings have identified a unique source of resilience for youth participants: the research itself. By providing opportunities for meaningful participation toward an important cause—improving the mental health experiences of others—the research team meetings became sources of well-being for youth. This encouraged participants to form an online community, which meets weekly to share perspectives and advance the work of the research program.

Masks created by youth researchers as part of their and Maria Liegghio’s research project in response to Question 1: “Show how you see children and youth described to have mental health issues;” and Question 2: “Show how you think others see children and youth described to have mental health issues."

Photos: Maria Liegghio

This therapeutic effect is heartening, but not surprising, says Liegghio; it was an intentional function of the research design.

Empowerment through participation

In designing the research, Liegghio drew on her background in social work, where she developed a clear perspective on what works for engaging with young people and understanding their mental health experiences. Her approach recognizes the power of participation: the potential positive impacts of studying with children and youth, rather than about them. For the youth taking part in her research program, this approach and the meaning it brought them engendered resilience.

“Despite the toll the pandemic was taking on them and their mental health, the youth would show up for the research meetings even on the most difficult days,” Liegghio says. “And in a past study of mine with the same participation element, youth would come to the meetings but maybe miss their therapy appointments. All of this suggests that, for young people struggling with their mental health, we need to support them as citizens rather than as psychiatric patients.”

A model for participatory action

From its beginnings in Liegghio’s research program, the online community of youth participants has evolved. There are plans to connect participants in Ontario and Quebec, and there is talk of hosting a youth summit to discuss and explore related issues.

The virtual nature of these meetings—chosen by necessity amid pandemic restrictions—has become a strength, broadening the community’s reach even further. That may extend to young people in El Salvador, where a similar project also led by Liegghio is investigating “the phenomena of resilience across borders and cultures,” with a focus on how people respond to the impacts of trauma and violence.

As well as generating takeaways for social institutions about service delivery, Liegghio’s research can also serve as a model for critical or sociological studies focusing on child and youth mental health as a political phenomenon.

“Social change occurs from the bottom up,” she says. “Action and change are more likely, because solutions are generated by the people and communities most impacted by the issue.”

Want to learn more?

Learn more about Maria Liegghio’s research and browse her publications on her York University faculty profile page.