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Helping a Child Build a House: using metaphors to construct a child-centred model of health

December 12, 2014

Valerie Michaelson

Dr.Valerie Michaelson (left) wins the prize for best 3-Minute Research presentation at the "Public Health Science Day"

If you wanted to develop a quantitative measure that would capture a holistic picture of child health, what would you include? Factors related to physical health? Emotional, social or spiritual well-being? Or perhaps you would include scales that assess risk behaviours and the supports that surround children socially? And even if you could agree on the categories, how would you weight them to be representative of the health of a whole person?

These are the questions posed by Dr. Valerie Michaelson, and they are key to the mandate of her research team: to develop such a measure over the next four years. Valerie is post-doctoral researcher in the field of Child Health under the supervision of Prof. Colleen Davison (Public Health Sciences) and Prof. Tracy Trothen (School of Religion). She presented some new insights into these inquiries at the Three Minute Research Competition at "Public Health Science Day", a recent event at Queen's Department of Public Health Sciences, in which faculty members, graduate students and post-doctoral fellows joined to present their research and debate current issues. Dr. Michaelson made a convincing case for the importance of her studies - her presentation was chosen as winner for the competition.

Valerie Michaelson

Religion/Public Health post-doctoral fellow Dr. Valerie Michaelson

As part of her research, Dr. Michaelson is involved in the CIHR-funded project Childhealth 2.0 , an initiative led by Prof. Davison. "One of the essential things we are looking to understand is what children see as important to their own health", explains Dr. Michaelson. "When we study children, it is crucial to give them a voice in the discussions, so we began our project by conducting a qualitative study. For this, we led eight focus groups across Ontario with a purposeful sample of 44 adolescents between the ages 11 and 15." In the study, the researchers asked participants to react to standard, commonly used definitions of health that are used worldwide. "What emerged from the focus groups was fascinating, particularly in terms of how strongly the young people thoroughly disliked these standard definitions. They thought that definitions, such as those by the World Health Organization, try to fit everyone into the same definition of health, which in their opinion won't work because everyone is different."

The focus groups helped Dr. Michaelson and her collaborators rethink their measures for child health. "Some of the definitions were developed 50 years ago, and the world and children's perceptions have changed a lot since then. Young people are used to a more customized world, so it is no wonder that they also would like a more customized model of health." Participants came up with remarkable metaphors for health, one of which was to describe health by using the image of building a house: "One child said that the walls are held up by family, another that the lights in the house represent happiness. Another child thought her foundation would be 'healthy active living' and another participant said that it would be 'mental health'."

ChildHealth 2.0

Childhealth 2.0: the house as metaphor for health

The image proved a useful way for the researchers to incorporate the youths need for individuality: "What seemed important was not that each component of a house had a direct parallel with health, but that this metaphor gave them a way of talking about health that left room for the diversity and uniqueness of each person", states Dr. Michaelson. "Understanding children's ideas about health will help us engage with them about important health issues on their own terms, and in ways that connect with their lived reality."

Valerie's interdisciplinary academic training gives her unique perspectives on studying child health. Before coming to Queen's Michaelson obtained a DMin from the Toronto School of Theology. Her doctoral research involved an interdisciplinary study about religious involvement, spirituality, and the health of children. One of most exciting aspects of her work is involvement in an international collaboration to develop an instrument to measure of aspects of spiritual health in children After four years of development and testing, this measure was used for the first time in 2014 in 8 countries as part of an international survey of adolescent health. She and her colleagues are now learning more about the important relationship between spirituality and health, and are currently working on two international papers, one exploring relationships between spirituality and emotional well-being and another looking at developmental and gender patterns in spiritual health.

Her recent publications include: Pickett W, Michaelson V, Davison C. "Beyond hunger: Food insecurity and its impact on the health of young Canadians." International Journal of Public Health (with Dr. Colleen Davison and Dr. William Pickett, forthcoming); "Participation in church or religious groups and its association with health: Part 2: a qualitative, Canadian study." Journal of Religion and Health (Journal of Religion and Health, 2014) (with Dr. Linda Cameron, Dr. Peter Robinson and Dr. William Pickett) and "Eucharistic eating, family meals and the health of adolescent girls: a Canadian study." Practical Theology, 2014 (with Dr. Tracy Trothen, Dr. Frank Elgar, Dr. Colleen Davison and Dr. William Pickett).