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The pandemic is really stressing youth out, studies show

Sobering stats and ways forward.

Times have been tough, so Squamish parents and teens will likely not be too surprised to hear preliminary data from a recent survey shows youth mental health has suffered throughout the pandemic. 

The ongoing Youth Development Instrument (YDI) survey is a well-being survey of Grade 11 students in six B.C. school districts (Revelstoke, Abbotsford, Maple Ridge Pitt Meadows, Sunshine Coast, Kootenay Lake, Pacific Rim).

“We asked them about their quality of life, their mental health, their physical health, and their social well-being and how does it compare to before the pandemic,” said Hasina Samji, assistant professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University and senior scientist at the BC Centre for Disease Control who is co-leading the study.

“Across all four categories, they report decreasing well-being, but it is particularly acute for the mental health category.”

The study is being carried out in collaboration with the Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP) at UBC.

Survey says....

The early results of the YDI also show that in the last six months, more than a third of the respondents reported that they didn’t seek help despite feeling like they needed professional help for a mental health concern. One-tenth of those who did not seek care, didn’t seek help because they were afraid of being stigmatized.

“That to me was really quite shocking,” Samji said. “Even at that age, they know that mental health is kind of a taboo subject, that their peers might look down on them for accessing mental health care. That is very much the opposite message of what we need to be sharing with young people and in general.”

Samji said she thinks young people have been some of the hardest hit by the pandemic and its restrictions.

She said her hunch is backed up by another survey that is underway.

Preliminary data from the BC Children’s Hospital Personal Impacts of COVID-19 Survey (PICS), which is ongoing, has found a prevalence of major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder appear three times higher in adults and children, compared to pre-pandemic measures for those age groups.

“What we are seeing is that young people are really struggling with the pandemic,” she said. 

Squamish’s Tami Jazic, vice-principal at Howe Sound Secondary concurs. 

“Related to the pandemic and the public health orders specifically, youth have been disproportionately impacted, and general feelings of being anxious and overwhelmed have been described by students,” said Jazic.

“They are doing the best they can with continuous restrictions that take them away from socializing with their peers, playing sports, and participating in extracurricular activities. They have been exceptional in adapting, and brave.” 

Silver linings?

Samji said while the news seems stark, there is hope, and it is seen in the early survey results as well.

“One of the things we ask about on both surveys is resilience — what are the types of things that actually help with people who are struggling,” she said.

About 40% of students in the YDI cited that there have been some positive changes in the context of the pandemic, including spending more time with parents, learning new things, developing a new hobby and getting more sleep. 

“The worst thing people can do when they are not feeling good, though that is the temptation, is kind of curl up in bed or watch some Netflix. That can seem like a really good coping mechanism at the time — really comfortable — but in actuality, the best thing for our mental health and well being is to connect with other people, and doing it outside, you kind of hit two boxes: some physical health benefits as well as mental health benefits,” she said.

What can parents do?

Samji offers some advice for parents.

“Generally, for parents looking to help their children who may be struggling, activities that YDI participants cited as helping with distressing events were spending time outdoors, physical activity, connecting with friends and family, spending time playing video games and watching tv, playing with a pet, reading books and listening to podcasts,” she said. 

She also said to have conversations regularly with kids about what is happening around the pandemic.

“I think it is a great learning opportunity for young people about globalization. I am always looking for silver linings, and I think one of the things here is learning that what happens in one part of the world really can affect everyone else, and we really are just one global community. I think it is a good opportunity to share that,” she said, adding that message can have a positive impact on mental health because it says that we are all in this together.

“It is also an opportunity to share with those people who aren’t doing so well, gratitude for what we do have and approaching life in that way and being grateful for what resources we have — and acknowledging that many people don’t have those resources. How can we help those members of our society who are doing less well?”

What is next?

Once complete, the results of the studies can be shared with government and health leaders to help leaders address immediate needs and prepare for future potential waves or pandemics.

Samji said one of the takeaways for her is that when we talk about mental health, we often associate it with mental illness.

“Whereas if we talk about physical health, there isn’t the negative connotations to it. There are positive aspects to our physical health, and there are negative — obesity and all of that — but when we think of physical health, it is all-encompassing — the good and the bad,” she said, “Whereas when we talk about mental health there is just an immediate negative connotation and that really speaks to the stigma.” 

We need to take care of people’s mental health preventatively, rather than just when they are struggling.

“What we are really trying to do is understand which groups are struggling the most and so that is one of the key takeaways from all of this work.... We are all in this together; we are all struggling... but there are some people who are struggling a lot worse. How can we identify those people? That is what our surveys, first of all are trying to do,” she said, adding they also ask those struggling what they need to feel better. 

“Our goal next is to translate that data into action,” she said. 

“We all have mental health, but we all need to be actively working to improve our mental health, especially in the context of a global pandemic.”

Samji’s co-lead on the study is Dr. Evelyn Stewart, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at BC Children’s Hospital and a UBC professor.

The researchers are actively recruiting for the Personal Impacts of COVID-19 Survey (PICS).

Squamish connection

Mental health is something that the Howe Sound Secondary student council members wanted to focus on this year, during their time in office. 

“The students are feeling the pressure of the global pandemic and really wanted to find a way to connect with each other and support each other,” said Jazic, who, in addition to being vice-principal at Howe Sound Secondary, also oversees its student council.

One of the council’s initiatives is a Mental Wellness Room. 

Students can stop by B112 at lunch if they need a place to chill. 

The room has art supplies, comfy chairs and quiet spaces for students to use.

Student council representatives monitor the room to ensure COVID-19 protocols are in place.  

“They wanted to create a safe place which embraces students’ needs and give them an opportunity to just have time to themselves or quietly with others when they feel they need to enhance their mental well-being. They wanted to provide resources and guest speakers to help engage with the diverse population in our school and give each student a place that they feel appreciated and a sense of belonging,” Jazic said. 

Another initiative spearheaded by council is a podcast hosted by Grade 12 student Markus Hernandez.

Marcel Mondays are educational podcasts focused on bringing forward the idea of belonging and inclusion.

There is also a Mental Wellness Speaker Series where — via video conferencing — speakers share their stories on mental wellness and strategies they used to help create growth, empowerment, positive mindset, stress reduction, and goal setting.

Jazic said students are catching on to the initiatives. 

 It has taken time, as it’s been a year of so many changes and so much going on. It [is] beginning to build momentum, and with this, the students are very appreciative of the different initiatives that are being put in place.”

Canadian Mental Health Association’s Mental Health Week is May 3 to 9.