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By: Pauline Ho

For nearly 10 million children and youth in Canada, September marks the start of a new year.  As another school year begins, friendships are rekindled and possibilities expand.

Many parents will lead conversations about the keys to success, yet few will candidly talk to their children about the importance of mental wellness. Mom and Dad are quick to remind the kids to pack gloves and scarves for their winter term away, but often fail to talk about self-care as part of overall health.

Poor mental wellness is increasingly threatening the lives of Canadian children. Suicide is among the leading causes of death in 15-24-year-old Canadians, second only to accidents. Our youth suicide rate is the third highest in the industrialized world. Every year 4,000 people die prematurely by suicide.

Recent data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information reported emergency department visits by children and youth, ages 5-24, seeking mental health or substance abuse treatment rose 63 per cent and hospitalizations jumped 67 per cent between 2006 and 2016.

In the last school year, the University of Guelph lost four students to suicide.  Since January, the University of Waterloo reported three suicides.  As alarming as these numbers are, they may not be painting an accurate picture of the severity of the problem since universities and colleges only track on-campus deaths.  Many, like Andrea Graham, the mother of Chase Graham who recently committed suicide at the University of Waterloo, are calling for the office of the coroners to track student suicides in order to understand the depth of this national epidemic.

Canadian students are facing a mental health crisis on campus. The national conference on campus mental health noted that “The number and severity of mental health issues are increasing… and higher education institutions must ensure they have the most up-to-date information, tools and strategies to respond.”

A survey conducted by Canadian Association of College and University Student Services revealed that 43,000 students from 41 institutions are prone to serious mental-health issues and suicidal thoughts ­– one out of five post-secondary students. This statistic is alarming.

In the last three years, McGill University has seen the number of students seeking mental health or counseling services on campus increase to a staggering 57 per cent. When Université Laval promoted its dedicated student assistance centre, the demand for support grew by 50 per cent. At the Université de Montréal, the number of students registering for mental-health services grew from 9,669 in 2013 to 10,464.

The reasons behind the surge in mental health demand remain a matter of debate within the mental health community, but experts agree that the problem is overwhelming.

Most experts agree part of the problem is the underfunding of mental health programs.  Canada trails behind when it comes to funding levels among comparable industrially developed nations with levels ranking near the bottom among a list of OECD countries.

The serious lack of mental health services for younger Canadians means problems are undetected for years.  Experts agree that there is no one reason why mental health concerns are on the rise, though there are some common theories.

“No one knows exactly what’s going on,” said Dr. Glenda MacQueen, a professor of psychiatry and vice-dean of the University of Calgary’s medical school, in an interview with the Toronto Star. “Youth today are under more pressure than ever before.”

The increasing cost of tuition paired with the devaluing of bachelor degrees adds to the pressure to succeed.  Students often feel the need for a second or third degrees, resulting in more debt.  When you factor in a future that no longer guarantees stable, well paying employment, is it any wonder that the correlation between student loans and mental health are interconnected?

Helicopter parenting, where parents do more for their children than generations past, can leave youth ill-prepared for independent campus living and less resilient when facing small failures.

For many immigrant youth, this pressure is further augmented with the fear of disappointing family expectations.  A common narrative for so many immigrant families is the sacrifice parents make so their children can have a better life in Canada.  As part of investing in that better future, parents often do more for their kids so they can focus on school. This leaves them ill-prepared for the activities of everyday life like meal planning, laundry and budgeting.

Social media has also had a profound affect on youth today.  It has created an open world of constant communication and dialogue that can be psychologically scarring.  Concerns about cyberbullying are rampant but what worries experts more is the amount of time children and youth are spending online and the negative effects of blue light rays on their brain, impacting sleep and mental health.

Progress has been slow but it is happening. With decreased mental health stigma and increased awareness of the services available on campus, more students are seeking support earlier.  Statistics show that once depression is recognized, help can make a difference for 80 per cent of people who are affected.

Mental Fitness Tips

  • Assess your emotional health regularly. Take time to think about how you are feeling.  Make it a priority.
  • Discover your optimum stress level. We all have different stress thresholds.  Positive stresses, like a deadline, can improve our productivity and even enhance our abilities.  As our stress levels increase, there is a point when it becomes overwhelming and negative.  Negative stress has been proven to reduce our frontal lobe functioning, which affects our memory and learning.  By optimizing your stress level, you will improve your mental health and learning.
  • Plan and prepare. Consider the particular demands or stresses you are or will be facing and prepare for them. Start prepping for school by preparing your own lunch, doing your own laundry your senior year, or offering to pick up groceries.  Talk to your parents about budgeting and credit scores.
  • Exercise. Regular physical activity improves psychological well-being and can reduce depression by 30 per cent and anxiety by 40 per cent. Joining an exercise group or a gym can also reduce loneliness, since it connects you with a new set of people sharing a common goal.
  • “Collect” positive emotional moments. Make it a point to recall times when you have experienced pleasure, comfort, tenderness, confidence, or other positive emotions.
  • Learn ways to cope with negative thoughts. Negative thoughts can be insistent and loud. Learn to interrupt them. Don’t try to block them (that never works), but don’t let them take over. Try distracting yourself or comforting yourself, if you can’t solve the problem right away.
  • Do one thing at a time. For example, when you are out for a walk or spending time with friends, turn off your cell phone and stop making that mental “to do” list. Take in all the sights, sounds and smells you encounter.
  • Enjoy hobbies. Taking up a hobby brings balance to your life by allowing you to do something you enjoy because you want to do it, free of the pressure of everyday tasks. It also keeps your brain active.
  • Set personal goals. Goals don’t have to be ambitious. You might decide to finish that book you started three years ago; to take a walk around the block every day; to learn to knit or play bridge; to call your friends instead of waiting for the phone to ring. Whatever goal you set, reaching it will build confidence and a sense of satisfaction.
  • Keep a journal. Expressing yourself after a stressful day can help you gain perspective, release tension and even boost your body’s resistance to illness.
  • Share humour. Life often gets too serious, so when you hear or see something that makes you smile or laugh, share it with someone you know. A little humour can go a long way to keeping us mentally fit!
  • Volunteer. Volunteering is called the “win-win” activity because helping others makes us feel good about ourselves. At the same time, it widens our social network, provides us with new learning experiences and can bring balance to our lives.
  • Treat yourself well. Cook yourself a good meal. Have a bubble bath. See a movie. Call a friend or relative you haven’t talked to in ages. Sit on a park bench and breathe in the fragrance of flowers and grass. Whatever it is, do it just for you.
  • Daydream. Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a dream location. Breathe slowly and deeply. Whether it’s a beach, a mountaintop, a hushed forest or a favourite room from your past, let the comforting environment wrap you in a sensation of peace and tranquility.