Dia dhuit! It’s hard to believe that I’m already halfway done with my practicum with the National University of Ireland at Galway Health Promotion Research Centre (NUIG HPRC). Although I still haven’t quite mastered Gaelic, I have been fortunate enough to have already been exposed to so many of NUIG HPRC’s critically important health promotion activities. As a WHO Collaborating Centre for Health Promotion, their work spans the small, rural communities of Ireland’s coast, to the management of global research projects that span over 45 countries.

HPRC itself is tiny—a small, two-story building on the north end of NUIG’s campus with only 5-10 people in the office on a given day. But what those 5-10 people have been able to accomplish is truly incredible. My practicum consists of two primary tasks: the first is the development of content for the new Mental Health Promotion online postgraduate degree, and the second is data analysis and dissemination of the 2018 Health Behavior in School Aged Children (HBSC) survey data (details on that to come below!).

‘What do children need to be healthy?’ youth engagement workshop hosted by NUIG HPRC at a school in Galway.

For the first two weeks, the majority of my time was spent working on the mental health promotion content. The program is unique in its focus on positive mental health versus the more traditional understanding of mental health as the mere absence of mental illness. Even so, I consistently found myself instinctively leaning towards language of traditional models of prevention of mental illness rather than promotion of universal mental health, and I’ve been really pushed to challenge my own assumptions and understanding of wellbeing.

Now, with the majority of the mental health promotion content behind me, I’ve switched full gear into data analysis and dissemination for the HBSC study. For context, the HBSC study is a global survey-based research study of school-aged children across the world. Surveys are administered to students in schools every four years, and the questions includes items around mental, physical and social health, as well as key demographic factors such as ethnicity, religion, and socioeconomic status. (Interestingly, some countries have specific rules on what you can and cannot ask children about—particularly when it comes to sexual orientation and sexual health! But that’s a discussion for another time).

Although I had a high-level understanding of the HBSC study before my first day, I wasn’t expecting to have so much freedom in the direction of my analyses. My first day at NUIG HPRC was intimidating—while sitting at a table of some of the top health promotion researchers in Europe, I was asked ‘what populations specifically are you interested in?’ If we were in America, I would know how to answer: indigenous and immigrant populations. But sitting at the table in Ireland thinking of evaluating mental health among Irish school children, I found myself lacking the necessary cultural context to answer that question. So I started reading. After a few days of background reading and close inspection of prior HBSC, I found myself increasingly interested in two key populations. The first is the Irish Travellers—a historically nomadic ethnic minority indigenous to Ireland with a long history of social isolation and discrimination. Irish Travellers are often mistakenly grouped together with the Roma community but they are in fact two completely distinct populations, though they both share a history of discrimination. The second population I am deeply passionate about is the study of UK immigrants vs. non-UK immigrants. Prior studies in Ireland have found disproportionately poor health outcomes among non-UK immigrants in Ireland, and I am interested in digging deeper into how health among first generation and second generation immigrant children in Ireland varies by their country of origin.

Although I’ve just begun digging into the data, I am already finding myself with so many more questions I wish I had the time to answer. My ultimate goal is to complete two short reports: one on mental health among Irish Traveller school children, and another on mental health among immigrant school children in Ireland. I’ll be writing a few ‘academic’ reports to post on NUIG HPRC’s website, but will also have the opportunity to use more creative means of communicating our findings to local non-profits such as infographics and brochures. I’m so excited to be able to pull together the findings and start disseminating them—NUIG HPRC’s work is critical to informing national policies and programs around childhood health and well-being. Drawing awareness of inequities is so critical for policy development, and I’m psyched to be part of the team!

Commuting buddies from my rural Irish home to the NUIG HPRC office.

Stay tuned for more updates on the data!

– Casey