New website takes a community approach
Reprinted from "First Responders for Young People" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 3 (2), pp. 28-29
I met Dan Offord only a few times before he died in 2004. In 2003 I was hired to build public awareness for the small—but respected—research centre that would later bear his name.
The Offord Centre for Child Studies began life in the early 1980s, and Dan Offord was one of its founders. It was known then as the Canadian Centre for Studies of Children at Risk. But its aim was the same—to study the factors that put children at risk of mental health problems and find ways to improve their lives and opportunities.
Dan—a researcher, clinician and scientist—was responsible for the landmark study that gave us the disturbing news, still true today, that one in five children has a mental health problem.1 It was a watershed moment in children’s mental health and it cemented Dan’s reputation as a giant in the field of child development.
It was no surprise, then, as I travelled the country singing the praises of the Offord Centre and its dedicated team of researchers, to find people who knew Dan and admired his work. What was surprising is that it was not Dan’s work as a scientist that left its greatest mark on those who met him, but rather, the impact he made as a mentor, a friend—and a human being.
You see, Dan was not a passionate advocate for children because he was a child psychiatrist. He was just passionate about children, period. As an adult, he returned every summer to the camp for disadvantaged children where he had worked as a teenager—not because it might be helpful to his research, but because he believed that the right supports delivered at any time in a child’s development by anyone can make a difference to their future.
Dan Offord’s philosophy continues to guide the work of the centre, now headed by Peter Szatmari, a child psychiatrist and specialist in autism.
“As scientists, we know a lot about what helps kids grow up healthy, because we’ve studied it in depth,” says Dr. Szatmari. “Where we so often fail is in sharing that information with parents and others in the community who can use it to improve outcomes for kids.”
Sharing that information has never been more important. Five out of six children who have a mental health problem will never see a mental health professional.1 Those who do are often diagnosed quite late, when treatment is less likely to be successful.
The Offord Centre prints information pamphlets for parents. These are available to libraries, public health nurses, family doctors, teachers and other groups that deal directly with families.
But many parents turn to the Internet for help and are often overwhelmed by the quantity of information—much of it conflicting. They end up confused, frustrated and no better informed than when they started.
The Offord Centre decided it was time for something better. It created the Centre of Knowledge on Healthy Child Development—www.knowledge.offordcentre.com.
Launched earlier this year, the website gives parents, teachers and others clear, honest, practical information on all kinds of child and youth mental health problems. Visitors to the site will find out how to identify, prevent and treat behaviour problems, anxiety, depression, learning problems and more. They can read plain-language summaries of the latest research from around the world. They’ll learn what’s normal—and what’s not—at every stage of development, and what works—nd what doesn’t—to improve kids’ mental health. All information is based on the latest scientific evidence and reviewed by experts in the field.
The website has won praise from parents and professionals alike. Parents get information previously denied to them, and professionals have easy access to published studies they don’t have time to research themselves.
“Dan Offord believed that every person has a role to play in helping kids grow and thrive. That’s what this website is all about—empowering parents, teachers and others who care about kids by giving them direct access to knowledge they’ve never had before, that isn’t available anywhere else, and that is backed by the very best science,” says Dr. Szatmari.
“With this knowledge, families and communities will be better able to help children and youth who are having problems, and to create the kind of climate that will support and encourage children at every stage of their development.”
Better knowledge, better choices, better futures for kids—Dan Offord would be proud.
About the authorSherry is an independent communications consultant specializing in health and children’s issues.
Offord, D.R., Boyle, M.H., Szatmari, P. et al. (1987). Ontario Child Health Study. II. Six-month prevalence of disorder and rates of service utilization. Archives of General Psychiatry, 44(9):832-836.