Professor Spotlight: Allison Kelly

Associate Professor, Department of Psychology


Professor Allison Kelly’s life seemingly revolves around a passion for teaching, research, helping others, and the study of psychopathology. Before becoming a Professor at the University of Waterloo and the director of the Self-Attitudes Lab, she moved from her hometown of Montreal at the age of 10 to Toronto, and then went to Kingston to attend Queen’s University where after an unhappy first year studying commerce, she completed her B.A. in Psychology with a minor in Philosophy. She then returned to Montreal to complete her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from McGill University and then completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Toronto General Hospital’s Eating Disorders Program.

Currently at the University of Waterloo she teaches Psychopathology (PSYCH 257), Adult Psychopathology (PSYCH 716), and Psychotherapy: Classical Roots & Contemporary Developments (PSYCH 728). At the same time, Dr. Kelly runs the Self-Attitudes Lab conducting and supervising research on topics related to psychopathology, self-compassion, self-criticism, shame, motivation, disordered eating, and body image. As she explains, “by practicing self-compassion we become less ashamed of our struggles and thus are more apt to seek help.”

Research Interests and Inspirations:

Dr. Kelly’s lab uses diverse methods to study theoretical models that help to explain the variation in well-being and psychopathology we see both across people and within a given person over time. The theory behind compassion-focused therapy has inspired a great deal of her research. In particular, she studies the ways in which shame and self-criticism contribute to the development and maintenance of psychopathology, and compassion from others, for others, and for self contribute to its prevention and alleviation. Dr. Kelly is inspired to discover the interrelated ideas behind various mental disorders and understanding common influences.

Ontario Early Researcher Award:

In 2019, Dr. Kelly received the Ontario Early Researcher Award. With the help of the grant money and her graduate students, she hopes to find novel ways to help students who are struggling with their mental health disorders. Her research was inspired by the fact that only twenty per cent of postsecondary students with mental health problems seek help. Untreated mental health problems can lead to long-term disability and too often suicide. To increase treatment-seeking, campuses have focused on raising students’ awareness of mental health services. However, this approach has had limited success because it fails to target one of the strongest barriers to treatment-seeking - shame.

Dr. Kelly has found that one of the most powerful antidotes to shame is self-compassion. This new study will extend her work to examine whether, among students who screen positively for a mental disorder, a two-week online intervention that fosters self-compassion will reduce shame and thereby increase the likelihood of treatment-seeking over time. This project can improve Ontarians’ quality of life, save the province millions in lost productivity and healthcare costs, and revolutionize the way campuses and communities across the world promote mental health treatment-seeking, making Ontario a global leader in innovation, much like our University is known for.

Self-Attitudes Lab:

Dr. Kelly’s lab is primarily focused on testing the applicability of compassion-focused therapy, and its underlying theoretical model, to people with eating disorders and body image difficulties. She also studies interventions designed to help people become more self-compassionate and compassionate with others. Dr. Kelly also assists each of her graduate students with their own studies, forming ideas, and publishing their work. Learn more about the Self-Attitudes Lab here.

Allison Kelly with students

Advice for current and future UW students:

Speaking from her own experience starting in a program she did not like, Professor Kelly urges students to discover a passion, a love, an excitement, and an enjoyment in what one chooses to study. Pay attention to how you feel in your classes, in the material you are reading or studying, and listen to your intuition and interests. Do not simply study for an outcome - the potential money, or the job. She says, “Often the ideal outcome will emerge when we immerse ourselves in a fulfilling process.”