Sheldon Kennedy is well-known in Calgary for, first of all, his former tenure as a right-winger for the Calgary Flames — grounds for heroic immortalization, to be sure. He’s also widely admired for his astounding courage off the ice: in 1996, Kennedy went public as a longtime victim of sexual abuse by his junior-hockey coach, Graham James.

Finally, and most impressively, Kennedy is beloved here and far beyond for his leadership in raising awareness of childhood abuse; he’s an ambassador for his namesake advocacy centre, which brings 95 doctors, therapists, police officers, educators, social workers and other professionals under one roof to offer leading services to exploited children and their families. No other such holistic service for kids exists anywhere in the world.

Still, despite Kennedy’s successes, it was — and still is — a long road to recovery, following years of abuse that started when he was an adolescent. “People think that just by telling your story, you’re healed,” says Kennedy. “That’s just the beginning —
I work at it every day of my life.”

It’s that lifelong fallout that Kennedy and the centre’s staff, who see 125 abused children every month at the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre (SKCAC), work hard to mitigate. Although they’re at the forefront of addressing the whole picture of an abused child’s physical, emotional and psychological situation, they, like all such caregivers, are still largely in the dark about which therapies have the most positive transformative effect on a developing brain in the long term. “There’s always been a gap with regard to our understanding of the science behind abuse,” says Kennedy. “We need science to help us make a systematic shift in our understanding and treatment of mental health.”

Enter the University of Calgary’s Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research and Education. In the fall of 2016, the SKCAC and the Mathison Centre kicked off a groundbreaking 15-year study that will follow children and adolescents over time to examine the impact of childhood abuse on their neurobiological and psychosocial development. “We’re just starting to learn how abuse affects a child’s brain development, and exactly how that might lead to problems down the road,” says Dr. Paul Arnold, director of the Mathison Centre. “People have a hard time understanding that childhood abuse can affect you forever.”

What makes this partnership extraordinary is that, unlike facilities where care is fragmented, the SKCAC’s one-stop approach allows researchers to see kids close to the time of their traumatic experience. “We’ll look at the effects of abuse on the DNA of children who participate in the study, to learn how genes are turned on and off,” says Arnold. He and his team will use cutting-edge genetic and neuroimaging technologies to study various aspects of brain functioning. “We want to know what’s happening to these kids that makes them more or less resilient — who develops depression and who does fine? Who is relatively protected and why? What impact does all that have on how well they do in school and in relationships?”

Ultimately, the devoted teams at both the Mathison and the Kennedy centres hope scientific study will generate new knowledge about how to help kids in the long-term. “We need evidence-based, trauma-informed training to help make the right choices for these kids,” says Kennedy. “When I look at my own life — dropping out of school, getting arrested, drug addiction — that’s all classic post-abuse behaviour. We need to help children early to make a real difference — to stop the shame and guilt from piling on. We can’t afford to fail.”

Launched in March 2012, the Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research and Education is an initiative of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine, made possible by a $10-million investment from Ronald P. Mathison. The Mathison Centre is improving our understanding of the brain changes associated with mental illness and the risk, onset and treatment of serious mental illness.

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