Medical researcher wins national award for her work identifying at-risk kids

(Edmonton) A University of Alberta researcher who may have found a quick and easy way of diagnosing mental-health issues and substance-abuse problems in children and youth recently received a New Investigator Award from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Mandi Newton, a researcher in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry’s Department of Pediatrics, was the principal investigator for a recently published review in the U.S. journal, Pediatrics, which examined various techniques to detect youth alcohol and drug misuse when adolescents show up in emergency departments.

“The statistics put out nationally show about 15 per cent of all children have a mental illness,” said Newton, adding most mental-health visits to emergency departments are related to substance misuse and anxiety disorders. In Alberta, one per cent of all pediatric emergency visits are mental-health related.

Newton’s team identified two key questions targeting alcohol use and a single drug-related question that were quite effective at identifying youth with a higher risk for substance-abuse problems. The two questions which pinpointed those with alcohol-dependency issues were, “Have you sometimes been under the influence of alcohol in situations where you could have caused an accident or gotten hurt?” and “Have there often been times when you had a lot more to drink than you intended to have?” Newton says Youth who answered “yes” to one of those questions are more likely to have an alcohol dependency.

The question that helped detect youth with abuse issues related to cannabis was, “How often in the past year have you used cannabis?” Newton says her team found that youth who report using cannabis more than twice per year have a higher likelihood of having a cannabis-use disorder compared to those who report less use, says the research review.

“These three questions could be used as a quick screening tool in emergency departments to identify youth who have a higher likelihood of having a substance-use disorder and who need further followup outside of emergency,” said Newton.

Newton said more research needs to be done to determine whether these questions should be targeted to youth seemingly at risk or used universally with all youth who show up in emergency departments.

The research paper stated, “By Grade 12, up to 57 per cent of American and Canadian youth report having consumed more than five drinks on one occasion.” The paper also said that early alcohol and drug misuse is strongly linked to dependence or abuse of alcohol and/or drugs later on in life, and that mental-health issues and injuries resulting in death or hospitalization are also linked to substance misuse.

Newton said that the emergency department can be a critical setting for identifying those youth who need help addressing their alcohol and/or drug misuse.

“For those youth who visit the emergency department as a result of their drinking or drug use, perhaps because of an injury or other risky behaviour, healthcare providers can link this alcohol and drug misuse to a known consequence and discuss whether the youth would like support to make some changes in his or her life,” she said.