May 6, 2024

UCalgary researcher seeks to improve mental health and well-being of neurodiverse kids  

University’s ecosystem enables child health research    
Smiling child on swing
Getty Images

In the early years of Dr. Carly McMorris's career, when she was completing her graduate degree to become a practising clinical psychologist, she worked with neurodivergent youth and their families and saw, first-hand, how the system fails them.   

When she returned to UCalgary to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Paediatrics, McMorris, BA’06, PhD, knew she wanted to take the stories she was hearing from her patients and use them to improve outcomes.   

“What we know is about 11 per cent of Canadians between the ages of four and 10 have a neurodevelopmental condition,” says McMorris, associate professor in the Werklund School of Education and director of the Enhance Lab

“What we also know is about 70 per cent of those individuals will experience at least one mental health condition in their lifetime.”   

Carly McMorris

Carly McMorris

Carly McMorris

Neurodevelopmental conditions affect children’s performance and function of memory, attention, social skills, focus and more. It includes conditions such as autism, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and cerebral palsy.   

And mental health issues can have detrimental impacts on their quality of life, well-being, and the ability for these young people to function and thrive at school and at home, McMorris says.    

Her work aims to address this issue. “I’m interested in why these folks, or these kiddos, are at a heightened risk for experiencing mental-health conditions like anxiety and depression,” McMorris says. “I’m also interested in how we can effectively treat, help or provide support to these folks to make sure that their mental health doesn’t become a lifelong issue.”   

Beyond improving health outcomes for children, youth and young adults, McMorris says her research is centred on spreading awareness and creating impact.   

“When I first started my position here at UCalgary eight years ago, my first hope was to raise awareness that mental health issues in neurodivergent folks is the norm, rather than exception,” she says. 

“My second hope is that our work will create an evidence base for larger systems like schools and health-care settings on approaches to collectively mitigate mental-health issues in neurodivergent folks.”  

To do that, McMorris works directly with the neurodivergent community to develop intervention strategies. “We partner with people with lived experience to understand how best to support them,” she says. “But also to determine ways that our neurotypical world can be modified to support these individuals to thrive.”   

And UCalgary is the best place to be to conduct this research, says McMorris, who is  a member of the Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute and Owerko Centre Her research spans a variety of topics such as child health, mental health, education and health systems. 

“I’m extremely fortunate to be part of the child health research that is happening here at UCalgary,” she says.   

“I’ve really benefited from having a variety of different affiliations and memberships at various institutes across the university, both in terms of how to foster transdisciplinary collaborations; how to create innovative, impactful research questions; having access to state-of-the-art equipment; and being able to be part of exciting research initiatives.”   

As a member of UCalgary, McMorris sees the tangible results of her research: “Since being part of the UCalgary ecosystem, I’ve been able to see the impact of our work through working with families of people with lived experience, working with neurodivergent folks themselves, but also working with our partners in community agencies, the health systems, education boards and here at the university.” 

All Kids Thriving: A Vision for Child Health and Wellness   

At UCalgary, we’re taking the lead in transforming child health. Join us May 8 for our second event in the Creating Tomorrow series where we will explore the relationships, partnerships and people involved in improving child health and wellness in Canada. Register now.   

Sign up for UToday

Sign up for UToday

Delivered to your inbox — a daily roundup of news and events from across the University of Calgary's 14 faculties and dozens of units

Thank you for your submission.