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Reducing youth violence in Canada and around the world

Robert McMahon
Robert McMahon

Youth violence and other conduct problems pose significant social, public health and economic problems in Canada, with adolescents accounting for a disproportionate amount of crime. 

While youth crime has continually decreased since 1991, it is estimated that more than 14,000 children and adolescents in British Columbia engage in more serious forms of antisocial behaviour such as violence, aggression, destructiveness and stealing.

Thanks to the incredible support of SFU’s friends and partners, a team led by Robert McMahon, professor in the department of psychology at Simon Fraser University, has been able to research effective intervention strategies to reduce and prevent youth violence. 

After more than 20 years teaching at the University of Washington, McMahon joined Simon Fraser University in 2010 as the B.C. Leadership Chair in Proactive Approaches to Reducing Risk for Violence among Children and Youth—a position made possible through the Leading Edge Endowment Fund and the generosity of our donors, and the first chair of its kind in the province.

Under McMahon’s leadership, the Institute for Reduction of Youth Violence (IRYV) was created at SFU’s Burnaby campus with the goal of establishing B.C. as a national and global leader in developing intervention programs that address violent and aggressive behaviour among young people. 

One of the institute’s most significant current projects, Fast Track, is a collaborative study focused on the prevention of antisocial behaviour in school-aged children at four research sites across the United States. A 10-year intervention program that started with children in first grade and their families and worked with them all the way through the tenth grade, Fast Track is the largest prevention trial of its type ever funded by the United States’ federal government. 

The intensive research study included interviews with the participants past high school, including reassessments in their mid-20s and early 30s. 

McMahon, who has been involved with Fast Track since its inception in 1990, says that while his team is still analyzing the data, it’s promising to see that former program participants at 25 years of age generally showed better outcomes across the spectrum—they were less likely to have criminal convictions, have psychiatric issues, or engage in substance abuse or risky sexual behaviour.

One of the most interesting findings, however, was that young adults who had participated in Fast Track also demonstrated higher levels of civic engagement. 

“The program seems to have made an impact on whether individuals voted in elections,” he says. “The finding suggests that participants feel a stronger connection to, or bond with, the broader community, and that they can make a difference.”

Now, McMahon and his team are seeking funding to conduct another check-in with participants in their late 30s to examine the long-term impacts of intervention programs like Fast Track. “Our work has made a difference not only in B.C., but across Canada, the U.S. and internationally,” he says. 

“What initially drew me to SFU was that I would be able to really focus on working with children with behavioural problems, both in a clinical and preventative context—and what we’ve been able to show so far is that the earlier we step in, the better.”