Studying at university opens up a range of sometimes unexpected possibilities. Annie Pelekanakis wanted to become a doctor. After earning her bachelor’s degree in physiology, she changed her career goals. She chose the area of public health with one certainty in mind: she preferred to work in public health prevention rather than prescribing pills.
After completing her master’s degree in public health at the University of Montreal, co-directed by researchers Jennifer O’Loughlin and Isabelle Doré from the Innovation Hub, Pelekanakis went on to pursue doctoral studies, focusing on the connections between substance use and mental health.
Under the supervision of Marie-Pierre Sylvestre, another researcher from the CHUM Research Centre, she will approach this component by interviewing the NDIT (Nicotine Dependence in Teens) cohort, established between 1999 and 2000 by Jennifer O’Loughlin.
A total of nearly 1,300 young adults, recruited at the age of 12 or 13 between 1999 and 2000 in 10 Montreal-area high schools, make up the sample. For more than 20 years, these people have been questioned at regular intervals about their use of cannabis, alcohol and cigarettes.
A data collection undertaking unique in Canada
“For the last two years, our questionnaire has been available online. It’s easier for the participants. During this data collection cycle that I’m involved in, we are focusing on the cannabis aspect.”
Up to now, no study has collected such information—let alone among the Canadian population. The NDIT cohort is rather unique in the world.
“The main goal is to determine the reasons that young adults use cannabis and to identify the risk factors. It’s worth mentioning that the scientific literature has focused a lot more on teens.”
After 20 years, an average of 800 participants respond to each new questionnaire. Pelekanakis hopes that this will be the case again this time. It will allow them to, among other things, continue other longitudinal studies started a few years ago.
We also want to study how cannabis use is related to anxiety and depression disorders and sleep problems. There is really a desire to understand how they will manage their symptoms.
Not impacted by the pandemic
With Marie-Pierre Sylvestre and Jennifer O’Loughlin, the young researcher has had a chance to get a peek at the scope of a longitudinal study conducted with the NDIT cohort.
Before and during the pandemic, the two researchers focused on differences in frequency of use of psychoactive substances, including alcohol, cannabis and nicotine (both regular and e-cigarettes) in young adults between the ages of 24 and 33.
Recent scientific literature considers this group as being most affected by anxiety and psychological distress.
Up to now, no study had collected such data, let alone among the Canadian population.
In their work published in The Lancet Regional Health ‒ Americas, they showed that the weekly or daily use of psychoactive substances was fairly stable.
These results are quite different from certain messages in the media that helped convey the idea that, during a pandemic, social isolation, financial problems and psychological distress cause a dramatic rise in the use of psychoactive substances.
Better protecting mental health
Even though the collection of current data interests her, she admits that she loves analyzing it.
“I’m passionate about exploring data and understanding what it has to say. Playing an active role in collecting information allows me to take a more nuanced approach when interpreting the data. The two go hand in hand,” she says.
Inherent in her research project is the desire to be able to identify interventions to put in place or develop to counter the growing mental health problems among young people, notably anxiety and depression. This could be done by programs offered in schools, for example.
I believe that we have an important advisory role to play in prevention with organizations such as the Ministry of Health.
The idea of recommending best practices and transmitting knowledge based on science comes up frequently in our discussion with Pelekanakis, who would one day like to be a university researcher—in Canada or elsewhere.
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