School of Religion

Picture of Valerie Michaelson

Dr. Valerie Michaelson

Postdoctoral Fellow
Joint Appointment with Faculty of Health Sciences

Research Interests:  When childhood studies meets religious studies and health research, the potential is ripe not only for interesting theoretical inquiry, but for improving lives. Long before there were children’s rights organizations, such as UNICEF, communities rooted in the world’s religious traditions were among the greatest advocates for the world’s neediest children; they provided guidance, aid and comfort to millions of disadvantaged families. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most widely accepted human rights treaty in the world, and it reflects values that are embedded within religious traditions across the world. As complex as the landscape can be, religious communities have the potential to be an indispensable partner in advancing Children’s rights and enhancing their health and well being. And harnessing that potential is at the heart of my research.

Integrating religious studies and health research is not a new idea. Etymologically, the word “health” is rooted in the words “whole” and “holy,” and many ancient cultures and religious traditions are rooted in beliefs around human beings as holistic, integrated beings. 

These ideas have been central tenants in many ancient indigenous philosophies that emphasize health as an interconnected phenomenon; it is comprised of four parts representing the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of being. Such holistic understandings of health have also been central in cultures with ancient heritage, such as Judaism. In Hebrew, the word shalom is used to mean the fullness – or wholeness – of what health can be; it includes the person, their place in this world, and the matrix of relationships that shape their life.  While modern health research typically focuses on individual characteristics that contribute to health, my research focuses on the whole person, including the dynamic interaction between the physical, mental, social and spiritual domains. One example of the way I explore this through research related to Inuit traditional social values or Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ). In July, I will be in Arviat, Nunavut, interviewing elders and researching ways that Inunnguinig (translated in English as “the making of a human being”) is used in Inuit child rearing contexts.  My goal in researching and measuring health holistically is to understand what children need in order to live well and fully in the context of their everyday lives, and so to make evidence-based contributions to health promotion and religious formation contexts. 

Another project I am involved with is called "Spiritual health as a protective mental health asset in young Canadians", which was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in 2015. There is growing recognition that the mental health of young people is a major health priority.  Relationships, defined broadly, are among the most important determinants of mental health in populations of young people.  Adolescents with deep and healthy connections (with themselves, with others, with nature and the land, and with something beyond) are known to have a strong level of spiritual health.  This spiritual health in turn may have positive health effects.  In this large-scale empirical research project, we are examining how spiritual health and its implied connections potentially influence adolescent mental health.  It involves in-depth analyses of the experiences and perceptions of groups of young adolescents from across Canada.  Our preliminary findings are intriguing, and suggest strong relationships between aspects of spiritual health and positive mental health in Canadian young people.

Trained as a qualitative researcher, it is sometimes daunting to be working with large data sets. But there is a power in these numbers, and I love trying to understand the human story behind them. What is going on in the patterns we are observing? Who are the people behind the numbers? What stories do their individual lives tell, and how can we recognize when a person’s unique experience is transferable to a larger population? That’s the way a qualitative researcher thinks, and in my research with young people, I am always looking to give young people a voice in the way that adults understand their experiences. I do this through the research itself, and through youth engagement and knowledge translation initiatives.

Childhood also makes its way into my teaching, and I taught the course “Religion and Childhood” in Fall, 2015. Drawing from a large and interdisciplinary literature base (including works from IQ and many of the world’s major religions), we explored the human experience through the lens of childhood.  From human rights documents to sacred texts to modern religious stories for children (such as the Harry Potter series), we saw first hand the ways that religion, childhood and well-being inherently go together.  I’m very excited to be at Queen’s, and working with an inspiring community of colleagues here in Religious Studies and in multi disciplinary contexts around the university.