How can we better understand youth mental health in Canada?

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There is an indirect relationship between mental health and poverty. For example, children growing up in poverty are three times more likely to have a mental health problems. However, there is surprisingly little data collected in this regard and without data that can be converted to useful information, there is little hope of either understanding the issue or creating appropriate solutions.

That's why Access Mental Health (M.H.) for Youth in Atlantic Canada, a five-year research project, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) from 2013-2018, is so timely. The project studies the barriers and facilitators of youth mental health in Atlantic Canada, a region often overlooked in the Canadian conversation on mental health. 

One of the four principal investigators of Access M.H. Atlantic Canada, Dr. Tilleczek says, "We will be speaking to hundreds of youth, parents and service providers to map out the journeys of young people through an often fractured system of youth mental health. Our aim is to better understand the meaning of mental health and to find ways to improve the system; within the school, in the community and in the medical system." 

A 2013 CEO Whitworth Award Winner, Dr. Tilleczek is an accomplished researcher on the topic of youth and mental health in Canada. She co-authored "Mental Health and Poverty in Young Lives: Intersections and directions" in the Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health.

Speaking about the topic, she says, "There is a relation such that being poor and living in poverty leads to both social and biological stressors and problems that affect our mental well being. In addition, people who suffer from poor mental health often experience stigma and other difficulties that affect their education and employment outcomes." 

To add another layer of complexity to the issue, Dr. Tilleczek explains that "the numbers and rates of youth mental health are in the incline and most mental health problems are first noted during adolescence." 

Dr. Tilleczek's recent article "Complex young lives in a fractured system" speaks volumes: "The Canadian Mental Health Association now estimates that 10-20 per cent of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness, with 3.2 million (12-19 years) at risk for developing depression. Others estimate that 30 per cent of students suffer from psychological distress with only a minority (1 in 5) receiving formal supports, which suggests why Canada's youth suicide rate is now the third highest in the industrial world." 

"We aim to … map out the scene of youth mental health in a comprehensive manner and for the first time," explains Dr. Tilleczek. "PEI, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland have similarities and differences in economic and social supports. However, there are similarities in the fractures and problems of the mental health system that we will also examine including long wait times for help and a lack of integration between medical, community and school supports for kids."  

But all hope is not lost. There are many stories of success when, and if, mental health professionals are able to provide excellent and appropriate support to kids and to work collectively in doing so. "Our project will focus on the voices and narratives of such young people and families to expose both the joys and sorrows of these journeys," she says. 

However, Dr. Tilleczak warned "the meaning and treatment of madness is of great interest in our modern time."

She explained, "This is perhaps the most pressing in relation to young people where we are seeing spikes in depression and anxiety and tending towards a further medicalization of their lives via medications and therapeutic models. While this can be helpful to some kids, we need to be very mindful and watchful that we are not medicalizing the experience of being young, per se." 

We will have to wait until 2018 for the research to be complete before having a better understanding of youth mental health in Atlantic Canada and before Dr. Tilleczak and her team propose a model to deal with it. 

Once that happens, the project could be undertaken in other areas of Canada. "In 2006 we conducted a similar study in northern rural Ontario to expose the ways in which these kids were 'lost in the woods' of a fractured social and medical system," she says. She and her colleagues then examined possibilities for using art to broker a wider and more meaningful conversation about youth mental health in the schools in Ontario and PEI. 

Hopefully the results and lessons learned from Access M.H. Atlantic Canada will carry over to the rest of the country and help curve -- and possibly even reverse? -- the growing trend of mental health issues in Canada's youth. 


Sanita Fejzic is an Ottawa-based literary author and freelance writer. She freelances for a number of newspapers, magazines and blogs including, The Ottawa Magazine and Apt 613. She was also the author of "The Beaver Tales" blog for Xtra newspaper as well as the Ottawa correspondent for 2B, Être and Entre Elles magazines. Sanita's first novella, To Be Matthew Moore, was shortlisted for the 2014 Ken Klonsky Contest, and she has published her poetry and short stories in various literary magazines including The Continuist, Guerilla, Byword and The Newer York.

Photo: flickr/Hey Paul 

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