Improving mental health in young people
Reprinted from "First Responders for Young People" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 3 (2), pp. 6-7
The strongest protective factors in a young person’s life are school, family and friends. In fact, feeling connected to school and having caring relationships can really make a difference in the health of a young person.
This was a finding of the McCreary Centre Society’s Adolescent Health Survey.1 The survey takes place every five years. The most recent was in 2003, and over 30,000 youth in BC schools took part.
The survey results showed that most young people are developing positively and coping well. For example, nine out of 10 teenagers reported good or excellent health. Also, today’s youth are waiting longer to try drugs and alcohol, and despite all the publicity, fewer are using amphetamines like crystal meth and ecstasy compared to those surveyed in the 1990s.
Although most youth are doing well, the survey also found that for some, this can be an emotionally difficult time. Over 16% of students reported seriously thinking about suicide in the past year. Twice as many girls (10%) as boys (4%) said they made a suicide attempt.
The McCreary Centre recently published a report looking at young people in BC schools who were at high risk of emotional and mental health problems—those with difficult home lives, and those who had been abused.2 The study found that these young people did much better when some, or all, of the following were present:
Feeling cared about by family
Having someone in the family to talk to about problems or having a parent at home at key times during the school week, such as meal times.
Feeling connected to school
Liking school and feeling safe at school helped those who had been abused or had unstable home lives.
Having caring adults around
Having supportive adults to talk to about problems was also helpful. Some of the people who can be helpful include school counsellors, teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers and youth workers.
Having supportive friends with healthy attitudes
Young people most at risk of mental health and other problems were better protected if they had friends that got upset if they did dangerous or risky things. In fact, the role of friends was even more important than that of family when it came to preventing problem substance use.
The results of the Adolescent Health Survey allow us to develop some practical ways to impact the mental health of today’s youth.
Provide safe and caring schools:
Caring teachers and staff, along with policies and practices that promote safe and welcoming schools, are important and can create a sense of belonging.
Promote healthy attitudes about risky behaviours:
Schools and communities can help promote mental and physical health through communication, public campaigns and positive role modelling. Families who encourage open communication and are good role models can also influence the behaviour of young people.
Support families in parenting roles:
Parents may need support to develop their parenting skills and to cope if their children have problems. Family-friendly employment policies would also allow parents to be at home when they need to be.
Provide opportunities to get involved:
Opportunities to volunteer and participate in the community can help youth to reach long-term goals and improve their feelings of competence.
Create a youth-positive environment:
Seeing all young people as having resilience and strengths, rather than problems and weaknesses, can help them to develop into successful adults.
The Youth Perspective
Young people across BC were asked for their reactions to the McCreary survey results3 and came up with some practical and dynamic ways to address the problems of mental health and suicide. Just a few of these ideas are listed below:
Separate mental health services and resources for boys and girls—their needs are different
Give information to parents so they can be aware of the emotional health of their kids, and notice any warning signs
Decrease the stigma of depression and other mental health problems by talking about them openly at school and in the community
Have presentations in schools about unrealistic images in the media
Have role models and mentors for youth to build positive relationships and self-esteem
Identify safe places where youth can go “just to talk” or to receive help
About the authorAnnie is Managing Director of the McCreary Centre Society, a non-profit organization committed to improving the health of BC youth through community-based research, education and youth participation project
McCreary Centre Society. (2004). Healthy youth development: Highlights from the 2003 Adolescent Health Survey III. Vancouver: author.
Saewyc, E., Chittenden, M., & Murphy, A. (2006). Building Resilience in Vulnerable Youth. Vancouver: McCreary Centre Society.
McCreary Centre Society. (2006). The Next Steps: BC Youths’ Response to the AHS III and Ideas for Action. Vancouver: author