Harvard Public Health Review Winter 2007
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Leaders worth folowing: HSPH celebrates distinguished faculty and alumni

Roland Matsouaka

Natalie Slopen, SD 2010

Inspiration for research:
“Knowing [clinically depressed] people who had hard times but not knowing how to help,” and concern regarding the health consequences of social inequalities

Connection to kids:
As an undergrad, led recreational activities for children with special needs in Haifa, Israel

Future plans:
To build on her research of stigma and disease; one past study she worked on compared workplace stigma surrounding AIDS, mental illness, and alcoholism in the United States and China

Stance on health care:
“Everyone should have equal access. I hope the U.S. will move towards a system that will make this possible.”

A Canadian Perspective
Looking at mental illness across the life course
HSPH doctoral student and current Goldsmith Fellow Natalie Slopen sifts through data on thousands of people from their childhoods over decades, examining the ways in which children’s cognitive abilities, their parents’ financial situations, and the stability of their home lives, among other things, affect levels of depression once they become adults.

It’s a complicated task, says her academic advisor, Stephen Gilman, an assistant professor in the Department of Society, Human Development, and Health. Before entering the SD program in the fall of 2005, Slopen had little previous quantitative analysis experience, but, Gilman says, “She’s been amazing. She’s a quick study and has mastered a wide range of techniques.”

The pair’s work goes a step beyond what’s been done before. Many previous studies have looked at individual risk factors for depression, or at children only, or at adults only. Gilman and Slopen’s complex analysis, which they will submit for publication this spring, aims at building a comprehensive picture of which childhood experiences exacerbate depression in grownups. Their research so far yields a rather uncomplicated result: depression can’t easily be broken down into standard categories like “major” and “minor,” which currently are distinguished by an arbitrary-seeming number of risk factors. It turns out, Gilman explains, that “the clinical syndrome of ‘depression’ is not an entity in itself, but exists within a continuum.”

Working with prospective data like that from the depression study is one reason Slopen chose the Society, Human Development, and Health concentration. “I like working with a life-course perspective,” she says. “In public health, often we only have data from one point in time, so trying to make causal statements is hard.” She plans to continue researching depression, perhaps focusing her dissertation on why women experience it at about twice the rate of men. Her facility with complex analysis should come in handy given her plans to study social, environmental, genetic, and other influences.

Slopen, 27, first became interested in mental health when, as an undergraduate in Toronto, she worked as a summer camp counselor at an outdoor program for kids with emotional and behavioral problems. Treatment, she realized, wasn’t nearly enough; she wanted to help them on a deeper level. “I still think a lot about those kids,” she says.

For her master’s thesis in social sciences at the University of Chicago, she worked on a team that examined ways in which newspapers report on mental illness in adults versus children. In a content analysis of U.S. newspapers over the course of a year, the researchers looked for stigmatizing language and evaluated how responsible journalists were in their coverage—whether, for example, they included information about how people might get help. Articles on children’s mental health were generally better reported than those on adults, says Slopen, who will publish their findings this year.

Ideally, Slopen, a native of Canada who grew up in Windsor, Ontario, a stone’s throw from Detroit, wants to return north and work in academic research. “I appreciate so many aspects of Canadian health care policy and public education,” she says.

Katharine Dunn has reported on advances in science, medicine, and global health for publications that include the Boston Globe, Technology Review, and Harvard Magazine.

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Related Links

Goldsmith Fellow Roland Matsouaka,
SM '07

Goldsmith Fellow
Natalie Slopen, SD '10

Goldsmith Fellow Goodarz Danaei,
SD '10

 

 

 

 

 

 

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