BrainWaves: The Neuroscience Graduate Program Newsletter

MiNDS Manuscripts: Sawayra Owais

AUTHOR:Vidhi Patel

Wondering what your peers have been publishing recently?

In this new series, students from the Neuroscience Graduate Program share their experiences of writing and publishing a paper.

This month, Sawayra Owais discusses her review that was recently published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry.

Psychopathology in the Offspring of Indigenous Parents with Mental Health Challenges: A Systematic Review

How would you explain the findings/focus of your paper to a first-year undergraduate student?

Parental psychopathology is one of the strongest predictors for the development of mental health challenges in offspring. We wanted to understand this association within Indigenous families and explore potential mechanisms underlying these links. We identified 14 studies that examined the association between parental and offspring psychopathology among Indigenous families from around the world. Broadly, we found that Indigenous children were 2-4 times more likely to have a mental health problem if their parent had mental health difficulties when compared to Indigenous children with mentally healthy parents. Of course, this finding is not surprising: children of parents with mental health problems fare worse than children of parents without mental health problems. When we looked at effect sizes of non-Indigenous samples in the literature, we found comparable effect sizes to the ones reported in our study. To fully understand these results, we need to better understand how ongoing colonial policies affect Indigenous communities, the importance of cultural reclamation and collective resilience, and ensuring that culturally relevant assessment methods are being utilized when working with Indigenous communities.

How did the primary research question of this paper come about?

Prior to beginning this paper, I had published a paper on the prevalence of perinatal mental health problems among Indigenous women. Recognizing that offspring of mothers with mental health problems have similar difficulties, I wanted to understand the landscape of this literature from an Indigenous context. However, I realized, at the time, there were only a handful of studies that examined offspring emotional and behavioural problems of mothers with mental health problems during the perinatal period. We decided to also examine at the impact of fathers, not only to identify more eligible studies, but also to better understand how the parenting and family environment may affect offspring mental health.

What advice would you give to students who are writing their first paper?

Read, and read a lot. I mean, regardless of whether we have a paper to write, we should all be keeping literature in our field. However, reading both seminal and recent studies will make writing your introduction and discussion sections much easier as you’ll be able to contextualize your study results within the broader literature. Moreover, reading other papers will give an idea of what clear, succinct writing looks like, and the general structure of a research paper. 

Did you face any difficulties while writing this paper? (writer’s block, lack of motivation, pressing deadlines, etc.) If so, how did you overcome these obstacles?

When I took large breaks away from writing the paper (attending medical school), I found it took me a long time to get “settled in” when I did return to it. I had re-read papers multiple times (because I had forgotten what they reported) and it was definitely a case of working harder and not smarter. One helpful thing I found was blocking off hours in the day exclusively for writing. Having a set day and time allowed me to focus on only the paper and limit other distractions. It was also a long enough time for me to get re-oriented to the studies included in the review, and also providing enough time for me to actually write. Another strategy I found useful was setting small, internal deadlines for myself, and even sharing them with my supervisor. I find that if I set a large deadline of ‘finish paper by XX date’ it’s much easier for me to keep pushing that date until next week (or next month). But smaller, earlier deadlines where I commit to finishing certain sections of the paper, or even writing part of a section, not only held me accountable but allowed me to keep the bigger picture in mind.

Was this a collaborative effort between different labs/departments/faculties/schools?

Yes, I was fortunate to be guided by a wonderful team of mentors on this paper. One of the co-authors is Mr. Troy Hill, whom I was actually introduced to around 5 years ago through a science communication volunteer opportunity (Let’s Talk Science – I highly recommend volunteering with them!). Mr. Hill, who is Mohawk from Six Nations of the Grand River, delivered cultural competency sessions based on his lived and professional experiences as an educator on the reserve. Since he knew I was interested in Indigenous health, we kept in touch. I told him about the paper – when it was just in the conception phase – and asked if he could provide guidance on contextualizing the study results. I am grateful that he agreed to collaborate on this paper with us! I think it’s kind of neat that an academic collaboration came about from a volunteer experience. Another collaborator was Dr. Jake Burack, a developmental psychologist from McGill who works with First Nations communities in northern Quebec. I was introduced to him through one of my committee members. Dr. Burack was instrumental in providing me with seminal papers on First Nations and Indigenous mental health, in addition to applying a strengths-based perspective on our work. Finally, Dr. Nick Kates, Chair of Psychiatry, guided the piece as well! We had some really great discussions regarding the array of cultural competency activities the Department was offering to its psychiatry resident learners and how the study results fit in!

How has this project impacted your development as a student/researcher?

I think this paper really helped me develop my critical thinking skills in addition to becoming a clearer and more succinct writer – at least that’s the hope! 

What can your peers in the Neuroscience Graduate Program look forward to learning in this paper?

Readers can look forward to learning more about the association between offspring and parental mental health among Indigenous communities. They can also learn about how some methodological issues – like sampling or measurement – can potentially affect study results and the importance of designing measurement tools based on the community being engaged with. Importantly, this paper may encourage colleagues to learn more about distal and proximal determinants of health facing Indigenous Peoples and how communities continue to be resilient despite structural disadvantages. 

Check out the article here!

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