Filling Demographic Gaps in Mental Health Research
Psychology Ph.D. student working to build knowledge about adults in ADHD and EI research
Trent Psychology Ph.D. student, Colin Henning, first contributed to the psychology literature during his master’s degree. His thesis used data from a longitudinal study measuring the attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder (ADHD) symptoms of first-year Trent students. Fifteen years after their ADHD symptoms were first measured, researchers followed up and discovered that the symptoms had remained largely stable.
“We found the stability of ADHD symptoms over that 15-year period was so strong it's actually very similar to a trait, which I argue makes the case for looking at ADHD and conceptualizing it as a trait,” said Henning. “Not just something you have or don't have, that you are diagnosed with or not diagnosed with, but something that lays along a dimension from low to high. Then we can think in terms of severity—the question being how extensive those symptoms are and whether that impairs your functioning.” Henning points out the presence of an impairment to someone’s functioning is where ADHD would be viewed as a disability.
In the eight different databases often used for psychological research, Henning couldn't find a single study that looked at the stability of symptoms of ADHD over adulthood. It was an exciting discovery and has inspired him to fill in other demographic gaps in psychology research during his Ph.D.
Exploring emotional intelligence and its impact on wellbeing
Now in his first year as a member of the first cohort of Trent’s Psychology Ph.D. program, he is looking to measure the importance of emotional intelligence (EI) on relationships in older adults.
“Much of the research on emotional intelligence has been focused on people between the ages of 18 to 25—adults easily accessible to university researchers—but only a handful of studies look at emotional intelligence in older adults. Middle aged and older adults have very different life stressors, very different challenges than people earlier in adulthood. So we want to look at whether or not emotional intelligence predicts relationship satisfaction—whether or not EI is important—for older adults,” Henning explained.
Theory on emotional intelligence expects that it should improve as a person gains life experience, becomes more in tune with themselves, and gains more understanding about their own emotions. The nature of relationships are also quite different for older adults so this combination of potential variables makes investigating EI in older adults particularly interesting for Henning.
“Colin is very much at home in the Emotion and Health Research Laboratory (EHRL) here at the university, leveraging both its physical and personnel resources” said Dr. James D. A. Parker, Henning’s Ph.D. supervisor and director of the EHRL. “The EHRL was created and funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) in 2001 with a mandate to extend current knowledge about emotion and health, particularly with respect to diverse populations and age-groups. Following in the footsteps of several dozen graduate students, Colin is having a great deal of success formulating research projects that will have an impact—in this case on how adults are supported in how they develop healthy relationships.”
Small Ph.D. program offers intimacy and flexibility hard to find elsewhere
Henning credits the small size of the Psychology Ph.D. program at Trent to his being able to continue studying both ADHD and EI. In larger programs, such flexibility is less common. A smaller class size also means closer relationships with faculty.
“One reason to come to Trent is because we have amazing supervisors,” Henning said. “I love being able to just chat with the faculty. I've heard students at other universities, the departments are so large, and the faculty are so intimidating that you can't just strike up a conversation with a faculty member or talk to people in the hallways. But at Trent I can just walk down the hallway, run into a professor in the psych department, and start up a conversation with them, which has been a great resource for me.”
Henning is also able to get more breadth of teaching experience at Trent as a workshop leader for a master’s level course in Applied Modelling and Quantitative Methods, choosing the topic of the workshops and designing the accompanying assignments. This kind of experience is vital for his future, as he intends to pursue a career in academia, but the program is flexible for people with different career priorities. Henning mentioned a colleague in the program plans to work doing research for a private organization or for government.
“For me, academia is definitely what I want to do.”