Research project applies global lens to student mental health

Kristin Cleverley, a researcher at CAMH and U of T's Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing, is chairing the Inlight Student Mental Research Initiative to enhance student mental health and wellness (photo by Horst Herget)

Students play an integral role in Kristin Cleverley’s research into student and youth mental health – not just as research participants, but as partners in research design. 

She says students are currently helping shape the creation of one of the first global partnerships, led by the University of Toronto, in student mental health research.

The Inlight Student Mental Research Initiative, chaired by Cleverley, aims to enhance student mental health and wellness in direct collaboration with students, institutions, and community partners through the creation of innovative and scalable research.The goal of the project is to address an existing critical gap in the field of student mental health research.

“Student mental health research in Canada is still in its infancy, and it is a shared global challenge,” says Cleverley, a clinician-scientist in the Margaret and Wallace McCain Centre for Child, Youth & Family Mental Health and Professional Practice at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and an associate professor at U of T’s Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing.

She received the prestigious Connaught Global Challenge Award from U of T in 2021 as well as well the university’s inaugural Connaught Global Research Impact Program Award (C-GRIP), which supports international research mobility.

“What is exciting about Inlight and the Connaught funding we have received is that we are able to create an international network of researchers with shared expertise to move the science of student mental health forward.”

In partnership with international institutions such as King’s College London, the University of Sydney and National Taiwan University, Inlight has fostered a global speaker series and global consensus conference to engage students first and foremost in high quality, impactful research that supports better student mental health on campus.

The purpose of this first phase of the funded project is to establish connections with global partners and lay the foundation for broader global research collaborations.

Rozina Somani, a member of the Global Student Working Group supporting the project, says the opportunities presented by phase one, including partnering with international researchers, has had a tremendous impact.

“As an international student, I have a unique perspective on the importance of accessible mental health services and I understand the challenge that myself and my peers have faced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Somani, who is also a PhD student at the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing who is pursuing a collaborative specialization in global health. “Being able to share this knowledge with international partners to develop shared language and resources around mental health for students is momentous.”

The Global Student Working Group, with the support of the project Engagement Lead, Emma McCann, has been instrumental to developing the program’s successful global health speakers’ series. The virtual webinars share evidence-based knowledge and strategies around specific topics impacting students such as classroom stressors, microaggressions, self-injury and self-harm. The first of these events brought together researchers from over 25 countries.

Somani, alongside members of the Global Student Working Group from other partner universities, has had an integral role in co-designing the global consensus study to identify student mental health research priorities.

Student mental health: Emma McCann and Rozina Somani are members of the global student working group

Emma McCann, left, engagement lead, and Rozina Somani, global student advisory member, are involved in global outreach for Inlight (photo by Horst Herget) 

“Developing a shared understanding of what constitutes student mental health, as definitions vary from country to country, is so important,” says Somani. “With our continued focus on shared engagement, we are able to create a foundation from which we as researchers can build from.”

In the second phase of the Connaught-funded projects, the focus will turn to bolstering international research exchange with students from partner universities being welcomed to U of T and vice versa, allowing students to share their expertise on an international scale. The exchange program is set to be launched in the spring of 2023.

McCann describes the underlying principle of phase two as one that recognizes students are part of a shared global community.

“Many of the challenges we have in supporting mental health is a shared challenge,” says McCann. “Recognizing that our students belong to a global community means that we also need shared solutions.”

In preparation for these international exchange opportunities, McCann and the student working group are also co-designing e-modules that will serve as key preparations for international research exchange opportunities. The modules will feature components that help users gain a better understanding of mental health on campus and are designed in collaboration with members from all partner universities. The e-modules can be taken by staff, faculty and researchers who want to gain a better understanding of the shared challenges facing students and their mental health.

“The beauty of this project is its true global reach,” says Somani. “The creation of a foundation of knowledge and the engagement of multiple collaborators, including students from various disciplines, allows us to have a true global perspective.”

Cleverley says that the emerging international partnerships will have a profound impact on scaling up current work around student mental health, and will transform the way we understand and support student and youth mental health, leading to high-impact and long-term global outcomes.

“We are in the midst of co-designing evidence-based solutions and recommendations with and for students,” says Cleverley. “Students are our future researchers; they are our future mental health leaders.”


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