02/12/2013 02:28 EST | Updated 04/14/2013 05:12 EDT

Majority of students feel anxious, worry about the future: survey

TORONTO - No one said adolescence would be easy, but a new report from Canada's largest school board is quantifying student stress in the modern classroom.

More than half of the nearly 103,000 students surveyed by the Toronto District School Board say they worry about their future, feel tired for no reason and are nervous or anxious at least some of the time, according to a report released Tuesday.

The board's wide-ranging 2011 student census — which included questions on everything from race to emotions — is thought to be one of the largest youth polls in Canada.

The report's findings have prompted the board to commit to a mental health strategy for its nearly 600 schools and emphasize that the survey may be indicative of a larger trend.

"I don't think this is about TDSB, rather this is about youth in general, at least in Canadian urban centres," said Maria Yau, research co-ordinator for the board, who added that senior staff were "quite shocked" by the survey's results.

"I think this is a wake-up call for all of us, for educators, to know that in fact our young people, from age 13 to 18 or 19 years old, indeed have these kind of concerns."

The survey — the second of its kind being conducted by the board every five years — points to a need for better support in the areas of mental, social and emotional health, said Yau, and will be used to inform TDSB initiatives in the future.

It also included data on individual schools which has already been delivered to principals and will be used to drive school-specific initiatives, like having more social workers or increased emotional support programs.

This was the first time the board surveyed its students on mental health issues.

When asking questions on social and emotional issues, the report found 73 per cent of students surveyed between Grades 9 and 12 were worried about their future, while 59 per cent of respondents in Grades 7 and 8 said the same.

It also found 72 per cent of students polled between Grade 9 and 12, and 63 per cent of those surveyed in Grades 7 and 8 said they felt nervous or anxious often or some of the time.

Meanwhile, 66 per cent of students surveyed between Grades 9 and 12 said they were under a lot of stress often or sometimes, while that figure stood at 40 per cent for respondents in Grades 7 and 8.

At the same time however, the survey also found that 70 per cent of high schoolers said they felt good about themselves, while that was the case for 80 per cent of middle schoolers.

When assessing physical symptoms related to emotional issues, the report found 57 per cent of respondents between Grades 9 and 12 were losing sleep because of worries, while that was the case for 38 per cent of students surveyed in Grades 7 and 8.

Meanwhile, 70 per cent of the high school students surveyed were worried about their school work, while 64 per cent of respondents in Grades 7 and 8 said the same.

Disconcerting as some of the results were, they didn't come as a surprise to at least one youth mental health expert.

"I think of the children in our society as the canaries down the mine. The youngest people are often the most sensitive to societal stresses that are going on," said Dr. Marshall Korenblum, psychiatrist-in-chief at the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre for Children and Families in Toronto.

Korenblum said uncertainty about their parents' jobs, worry over their own future employment prospects and labour strife among their educators could all contribute to stress among students.

Korenblum advised parents startled by the report's findings to talk to their children and look for signs of distress. A student's academic and social progress, as well as a child's own expression of worry are markers which could point to the need for further assessment.

Better screening for anxiety among students in schools, wider availability of social support resources and more extracurricular activities could all help reduce student anxiety and distress, Korenblum added.

"I'm definitely not saying put all these kids on psychiatric drugs," he said. "They don't all need therapy, they need support."

An excerpt of a letter from a student, which was included with TDSB's report on Tuesday, highlighted that need.

"TDSB should make joining two clubs/sport teams/play dance show mandatory. Real learning exists outside of the classroom. … (these) can all provide life-long lessons, academics (alone) cannot," the student wrote. "Many students are afraid to join clubs or sport teams because they are insecure about their body or do not know anyone on that club team."

The TDSB says it serves more than 250,000 students each year. It said 95 per cent of its seventh and eight graders and 84 per cent of its students in Grades 9 to 12 responded to the survey.

The report was released on a day when conversations around mental health were encouraged across the country.

Bell Let's Talk Day, aimed at ending the stigma around mental illness, included campaign ambassadors visiting schools in certain cities to get youth engaged in discussing mental health.