The eConnect Online program is an adaptation that builds on the strong evidence of the broadly implemented in-person Connect program. We have adapted the program to be delivered online using a secure videoconferencing platform. This support caregivers from different locations to come together online for highly interactive and engaging sessions with group facilitators and other caregivers, in real-time to learn about attachment and to practice how to apply this understanding to challenges they experience in their own families every day. The development of this program began with the goal of bringing our evidence-based program to families with at-risk teens in rural communities and small towns in BC who do not have sustainable access to the program in-person. However, with the spread of COVID-19 limiting face-to-face contact, we have been working hard to expedite the development of eConnect Online to address the urgent need for accessible mental health interventions for vulnerable youth and families. We are also working on revising the content of Connect to target specific COVID-19 stressors, while still retaining the core attachment- and trauma-focused principles underlying Connect’s success across cultures and populations over the past two decades. Our goal is to mitigate the short-term and long-term negative consequences of COVID-19 for vulnerable teens and families during this stressful time.
Why eConnect Online during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Closures and social restrictions introduced by COVID-19 (e.g., closure of school, recreational facilities and stores, event cancellations) are particularly difficult for teens, because they severely limit teens’ access to key social supports during a time of increased stress and mental health risk. A recent survey conducted by Oosterhoff and Palmer involving 770 American teens (ages 13-18) showed that 70% did not engage in full social distancing despite following media updates and high compliance with disinfecting behaviour. So even with media information and good compliance to some recommendations, the majority of teens struggle with the key preventive strategy, social distancing, placing family members and the public at risk. This risk is likely higher among vulnerable teens, specifically those with pre-existing mental health challenges and histories of trauma and/or disruptions in their relationships (e.g., teens in foster care). Violation of health guidelines, family conflict and violence can increase risk for vulnerable teens to leave or be ejected from home, resulting in serious long-term family and social disruption, homelessness, and increased mental health problems in youth and caregivers.
While there are many recommendations for parents of typically developing teens, they do not necessarily meet the special needs of vulnerable teens and their families. The Connect program can help fill this gap and address the needs of this vulnerable sector of the population. We know from extensive research that Connect is effective in reducing emotional and behavioural problems among vulnerable teens, as well as conflict within the family. It does so by improving the building blocks of attachment security in the parent-teen relationship, reducing caregiver stress and depression, and helping parents and teens to better communicate with each other, even when emotions run high. This is particularly valuable during the COVID-19 pandemic as teens and parents are under exceptionally high levels of stress. Restricting outings and visitors to the home increases family tension and conflict can escalate. The Connect program is also uniquely suited to address COVID-19 stressors on a large scale because it was designed for broad implementation by a range of mental health practitioners and can be flexibly adapted to address COVID-19-related challenges experienced by populations with different cultural or socioeconomic backgrounds.
International eConnect Online Network
Our international network for the eConnect Online project has grown rapidly, with new sites in Mexico and South Africa ready to implement the intervention, along with our existing international implementation sites in Sweden, Italy, and Australia. Phase 2 of the project could involve further expansion of the program to the US and the UK.