A Halifax-based researcher is working to improve mental health supports and services for people who have sexual interest in children.
Skye Stephens, a clinical and forensic psychologist and assistant professor at Saint Mary’s University (SMU), is one of the few researchers in the country looking at developing better ways of preventing sexual abuse against children in Canada.
“Before someone offends, they have this interest. They were potentially struggling with that,” said Stephens in an interview. “We need to have a way of developing programming for those folks.”
Right now, most work in North America is done after someone has offended or is abused, according to Stephens.
There aren’t any centralized services in Canada for people with sexual interest in children who haven’t offended. The number of mental health professionals trained in this area, or with sexual health training at all, is quite low.
Sexual interest in children typically develops in adolescence. These individuals might “hold extremely negative views of themselves because they have internalized wider societal stigma,” explained Stephens.
She feels it’s an important distinction that sexual interest in children and childhood sexual abuse are not synonymous. Stephens said hers and other research suggests 40 to 50 per cent of people who offend against children do so for reasons other than sexual interest. Some abusers offend indiscriminately and will victimize people of any age.
Developing a workshop
For Stephens, the perception that all people with sexual interest in children are offenders can influence the type of mental health treatment and care they receive.
She feels researchers and clinicians need to be aware of that bias and how it might impact their interactions.
Stephens is currently working with a master’s student at SMU who’s researching the barriers people with sexual interest in children face when accessing counselling and other mental health supports.
Kailey Roche’s thesis research is twofold. She sought feedback from mental health practitioners from across Canada and the United States on whether they would attend a workshop on how to support these clients and what issues would be helpful to cover in such a workshop.
She also surveyed those with sexual interest in children on their experiences seeking mental health services.
Roche received feedback from 111 clinicians, mostly registered psychologists and social workers, who she said seemed very open to attending a workshop.
They suggested the workshop address how to properly respond when someone discloses they have a sexual interest in children in order to maintain a safe and open environment. They also suggested creating a resource listing mental health professionals specializing in the area.
Roche will defend her thesis sometime this spring or summer before continuing her studies toward a PhD. She said there’s a growing interest in this area of research, but it’s still fairly niche and placements are few.
“Compared to somebody who is more interested in general mental health or depression [and] anxiety, there are a lot fewer areas to go, but it’s exciting to see it developing,” said Roche.
The applied forensic psychology master’s program is fairly new at SMU, having launched in 2017. Stephens hopes to be able to work with PhD students in future.
Mandatory reporting was another big topic that came up during Roche’s research with mental health care providers. In North America, an individual must be reported if clinicians determine a child might be at risk. Stephens feels this isn’t well-defined though.
While she feels mandatory reporting isn’t a bad thing, it can make developing in-person support programs more complicated. And if people are afraid they will be reported, they may not seek those services.
She noted Germany has very advanced prevention programs, including a phone number to call and several centres offering an assessment and 12-month treatment program. The country also doesn’t have mandatory reporting legislation.
Last June, Stephens completed a two-year needs assessment study. She and Ian McPhail, a PhD candidate from the University of Saskatchewan, received joint funding from Public Safety Canada for the project.
Part of it looked at barriers to programming for people with sexual interest in children with a focus on mandatory reporting.
The research provided a basis for a comprehensive program for individuals with sexual interest in children who are not currently involved with the criminal justice system.
It said the program should take the diverse needs of these individuals into consideration. For example, some may want help managing sexual urges while some may have other mental health problems.
For Stephens, the hope is to eventually see prevention programs developed in Nova Scotia for people with sexual interest in children. That may take some time, though.
Stephens said development moves “very slowly and systemically.” There are also still a lot of questions to be answered when it comes to developing treatment programs. For example, who will provide the treatment? The most important thing is whether or not it will be effective.
“It’s a lot of steps and you want to do it carefully and methodically and make sure it has the best chance of succeeding,” she said.
Being able to secure funding is another important factor. After submitting the report for the two-year needs assessment study to Public Safety Canada, Stephens said the next step is trying to get funding to develop a pilot prevention project with her colleagues.
Stephens said overall she’s been able to do a lot of work with limited funding, but her area of research isn’t always at the top of the priority list.
“I think it can be a bit of a hard sell, depending on what you’re competing against,” she said, pointing to other areas like research on cancer or autism.
For Stephens, though, furthering the work on these types of prevention programs is an important investment.
“I don’t know, as a society, if we’re ever going to eradicate something like childhood sexual abuse, but I think there are a lot of things we can be doing more effectively to bring some of those numbers down,” she said.
Addressing the stigma against people with a sexual interest in children is an important aspect. As a professor and researcher delivering talks on the topic, Stephens said she anticipates a negative reaction from people.
“I understand it’s a really hard topic, it evokes a lot of emotion and really strong public reactions, but we have to talk about it if we want to put things in place to adequately address it and hopefully solve it,” she said.
“Getting that public support is an important piece.”
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Alex has worked in the radio industry for over 10 years at stations throughout BC and central Alberta. She has a Bachelor's Degree in political...