Youth mental health in Canada
Mental health awareness is on the rise. People across Canada are beginning to understand just how serious mental health concerns and associated stigma can be. Yet few people understand the depth or breadth of the mental health concerns of children and youth.
Oftentimes when adults talk about the mental health concerns faced by young people, it is limited to a discussion on the impacts of bullying. However, young people live diverse realities, and various experiences and issues affect their state of mental health and mental well-being. Different organizations are using different ways to try to "measure" and report the mental health or well-being of children and youth with the aim of improving support for them. These offer different sight lines and give contrasting pictures of the prevalence and nature of mental health and mental well-being.
Mental health statistics in Report Card 13
UNICEF Canada's recent report Fairness for Children: Canada's Challenge, found that nearly one quarter of Canada's children, in early adolescence, report one or more health complaints or issues every day (headache; stomach ache; backache; feeling low; irritability or bad temper; feeling nervous; difficulties in getting to sleep; and feeling dizzy).
Frequent health complaints are usually an expression of stressful situations and relationships at home, at school, or among peers. The report also found that Canada's children report a fairly low level of life satisfaction. Almost one in 10 Canadian children give life a four out of 10 on a scale where zero means 'the worst possible life for me.' These findings offer a view of mental well-being that are not easily explained, though life satisfaction at this age tends to be strongly influenced by family and other close relationships.
Why is young people's sense of well-being declining?
The same UNICEF Canada report found that income inequality in Canada has widened in recent years - while some indicators of children's mental well-being have declined. Research has found that greater income inequality seems to come with increased competition and anxiety in families and across society. This can be perceived even by children at young ages and may translate to a stress reaction that can impede cognitive and social development. In older children, it can be expressed as anxiety and the kinds of symptoms reported in the UNICEF study.
It may be that wide social inequalities affect children's sense of well-being. Children may absorb the stress in families that are struggling to get by or competing to achieve.
What do young people say about it?
We can't be certain what supports or undermines young people's mental health without asking them. To this end UNICEF Canada is partnering with WorldVuze, an online site where K-12 students can safely share perspectives with other students around the world. The 'Better than Before' Challenge on the WorldVuze site enables teachers to pose important questions to their students, and share insights with UNICEF Canada. Responses to the question, 'My life would be most improved/made better if I...' show that young people are affected by a lack of sleep, a lack of time to themselves, low self-confidence, and pressure to do well. All of these factors may dampen their mental health.
A focus group of young people from the Students Commission of Canada echoed what we heard in Worldvuze. In a statement the young people prepared, they said:
People don't talk about the spiritual and mental part of health as much as they should. Mental health is important. Young people feel a lot of pressure but also feel like they can't make a difference. This makes you feel powerless, and when you feel that way, you need someone to reach out to for help. But finding support and asking for help is hard. Some communities don't have the resources you need. Sometimes you don't know about the programs that you can use. Young people need more awareness of the mental health programs that do exist. Having a support system can get you to a much better place.
Helping Young People to Feel Better than Before
Child and youth mental health matters. We need to listen to young people to better understand what they think mental health is and what's affecting it -- and to find the solutions that will help their mental health be better than before.
Note: If you're a teacher or student interested in getting your classroom involved in the Better than Before challenge, visit www.worldvuze.com to sign up today!
Stacia Sahi is a Domestic Policy Officer with UNICEF Canada.