John Abela

John Abela McGill University

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McGill Reporter
March 23, 2000 - Volume 32 Number 13
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John Abela

| Childhood is supposed to be a time of playful exploration, a time of exuberance and innocent delight. But some kids have to contend with spirit-crushing bouts of depression. John Abela wants to know why.

PHOTO: OWEN EGAN

Since arriving at McGill last fall, Abela, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, has launched several research projects examining the vulnerability of children and adolescents to depression.

It's a research area destined to grow in importance, he says, "since depression has been described as the common cold of mental illnesses."

While the majority of past research into depression has focused on how it affects adults, very little is known about its impact on children. Most researchers have focused their studies on adults, Abela says, because depression is harder to assess in children and kids often don't understand questions posed by researchers.

Before the age of eight, children think in largely concrete terms and find it difficult to reason abstractly, Abela says. But with some gentle, skilled prodding, Abela says, children can tell you a lot about what troubles them. He says, "Kids are more sophisticated than we think."

Researching childhood depression is important, Abela says, since nine percent of kids are diagnosed with depression by the age of 14. What causes their depression isn't clear; symptoms range from loss of appetite, energy and interest in activities to suicidal thoughts.

While five models of depression have been identified — cognitive, behavioural, interpersonal, psychodynamic and biological — Abela's research will look into how some models overlap, beginning in childhood. "Depression is very complicated and not one model can explain its causes completely," he says. "What I hope to do is integrate several models into one psychopathology model."

Abela says his interest in the vulnerability of children to depression is fuelled by his love of kids and the hope his research may find ways to prevent the illness in adults.

"Depression is such a debilitating disorder," he says. "If we can find its cause in children, we can treat people sooner, and save so many people from so much suffering."

In his latest research project, partly funded through a $320,000 grant from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI), Abela and his team of research assistants will follow 150 children and their parents for three years to determine their risk of depression based on family history. The CFI grant will be used to purchase several $1,500 palm-sized computers that will ring periodically, to enable his participants, aged 6 to 12, to enter data.

A special program has been developed so that the children can answer questions vocally or through a touch-screen. To ensure they willingly participate for the full three years, data collection will be rewarded with games. "Probably Pokémon, so the kids find it fun," says Abela, noting he's still ironing out details like where the computers will stay — at home or school — to ensure they aren't lost.

A native of Rhode Island and Boston, the 28-year-old researcher studied at Brown University, the University of Pennsylvania and interned at Harvard University Medical School before coming to McGill. Because Abela regularly visited a childhood friend in Montreal, he says, "I was dying to work in the city and McGill was my top choice."

Having taught and researched, Abela is now eager to begin clinical work with children. "Clinical work can spark ideas," he says, "that can enrich teaching and research."

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