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How does childhood trauma impact problematic eating and substance use among adolescents?

16 April 2021
Student Spotlight: Ivana Kihas
We spoke to Ivana Kihas about her PhD journey with the Matilda Centre and her work in co-occuring post traumatic stress disorder, substance use and eating disorders.
Ivana Kihas

Ivana Kihas, PhD student

What is your background and why did you choose to take on a Higher Degree in Research with the Matilda Centre?

I completed an Honours degree in Psychology at Macquarie University, Sydney and at the time only saw a clinical Masters path ahead of me. In the interim, I worked as a Research Assistant at UNSW and joined the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Mental Health and Substance Use (CREMS) team, which later became the Matilda Centre, as a Research Assistant on the Activate Study. After the study concluded, I decided to do some travelling through Europe and based myself in my hometown of Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. It wasn’t until I was back in Sarajevo that I started to seriously consider doing a PhD.

Knowing the significant turmoil my hometown has gone through, and seeing first-hand the negative and lasting impacts of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sparked my desire to do research in this field. The only place I could see myself doing a PhD was within the Matilda Centre.

After discussing my interests with my now-supervisors, I decided to come back to Australia and start a PhD. Very early on my supervisors told me a PhD is not a sprint, it’s a marathon in which life happens. I feel very privileged to have the support of an amazing supervisory team in a marathon that has had its challenges and moments of success.

Can you tell us about your research?

My research explores the co-occurrence of traumatic stress, problematic substance use, and disordered eating behaviours among Australian adolescents. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance use disorders are two of the most prevalent mental health disorders in Australia, while eating disorders represent the third most common chronic illness for young females in Australia.

All three disorders typically have their onset in adolescence, a crucial and formative time. It is estimated that 80% of adolescents have experienced at least one traumatic event, and of those one in seven suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Trauma exposure and PTSD often co-occur with substance use and eating disorders.

My aim is to understand how trauma, problematic eating patterns, and substance use symptoms develop and interact among adolescents. And, what are the shared risk and protective factors in these relationships? To help me answer these questions I have been fortunate to work on the COPE-A study.

Tell us about the COPE-A study ...

COPE-A aims to better understand the interaction of PTSD and substance use. It is a randomised controlled trial comparing the efficacy of two psychological therapies for the treatment of co-occurring post traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorder in young people. Eligible participants complete three research interviews over 12 months and receive up to 16 weekly sessions with a clinical psychologist. The trial aims to improve our understanding of effective treatment for young people experiencing co-occurring traumatic stress and alcohol and/or other drug use. The study is no longer recruiting.

What do you love about your job?

I love the freedom and endless possibilities it provides. Within my role I’m encouraged to voice my opinion and I always feel like I am heard. The Matilda Centre encourages you to explore topics you are passionate about, provides flexibility to enable you to answer your questions, and supports you to achieve all your research dreams. What I love most is the community I am part of every day; I love that in my job I can relate to the famous quote “when you do what you love, you never work a day in your life”.

Speaking of quotes, what is your all-time favourite quote?

We are the sum total of our experiences … those same experiences, and those yet to come, continue to influence and reshape the person we are, and the person we become.
B. J. Neblett


Treating substance use and trauma among adolescents

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