Rural youth feel connected to their townships but social isolation is still an issue

Youth in rural townships including Wellesley, Wilmot, North Dumfries and Woolwhich are reporting a greater sense of belonging, wellbeing and connection to environment than some of their urban counterparts.
Wellesley was one of four towns represented in the 2021 survey results. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Some youth in rural townships — including Wellesley, Wilmot, North Dumfries and Woolwich, Ont. — are reporting a greater sense of belonging and connection to the community than some of their urban counterparts.

That's according to a recent geographical data breakdown of the Children and Youth Planning Table's Youth Impact Survey 2021, which heard from more than 1,000 young people between nine and 18 years old across Waterloo region.

And while living in a smaller, more tight-knit community helps promote some positive feelings, it may also increase a sense of social isolation, says a rural expert.  

"There's not a lot of in and out flux [in townships], and that creates that kind of stability and belonging," said Rosslyn Bentley, executive director of the Woolwich Community Health Centre, which provides primary care and community services to about 10,000 people in surrounding rural communities.

Of the 1,000 survey respondents, 11 per cent were from one of the four regional townships. A lack of connectivity in rural communities may have limited access to the digital survey, said Bentley.

Almost 74 per cent of those surveyed said they felt a strong sense of belonging to their community, compared to almost 55 per cent from Cambridge, 63 per cent from Kitchener and 66 per cent from Waterloo. 

When it came to mental health, 65 per cent of rural youth described having positive mental health, that's between seven to 14 per cent higher than urban peers.

However, she said while rural youth are doing better in some areas, they're suffering in others.

Rural issues

Ahmad Khan, 18, and Cara Wakem, 17, both live in Wellesley and agree that they feel like they belong in their community. 

Khan, who used to live in Brampton, said he enjoys the vast green space and community connections in smaller towns.

"The bigger the city is, the more insignificant you feel," he said.

But at the same time, the soon-to-be university student said living in a smaller community has limited his work opportunities — an infuriating barrier.  "Cities have more youth employment opportunities whereas towns lack that. For example, I  am beginning [university] this fall and I still have no work experience," he said.

Meanwhile Wakem said even though the community is close, it's still hard to connect with people. She said transportation is a big issue in rural areas that also don't see many entertainment events such as music shows.

Wakem said for example, she sees her best friend, who lives out of town, once every few months.

"We don't get to see each other much because there's nothing out there and nothing out here," she said.

Bentley said these are youth issues she's heard before.

"We know there are fewer social hubs and recreational activities. At least in urban areas, you've got a library, you've got a sports complex …You've got a lot of social activities that are not necessarily narrowly focused. And so there's usually more opportunities," she said, noting the Woolwich Community Health Centre has seen an additional 800 visits per year during the pandemic. 

Bentley said social isolation may be even harder for youth who are also part of marginalized groups who may face racism or homophobia.

She said there concerns with regards to career planning stem from limited options in smaller communities.

"The cost of housing in this community means that many young people cannot possibly imagine working and living in these communities. There's so little employment opportunity … they almost inevitably have to move away [and] that creates a lot of family strain for many people," she said. 

Issues across the board

Alison Pearson, manager of the Children and Youth Planning Table, said regardless of the breakdown of numbers, there are similar trends across the board. 

"We see trends headed in a direction that would suggest the wellbeing of young people across the region is declining," she said.

She said this geographical snapshot is one of eight that will be released in the coming months. 

In the meantime, Bentley said her workplace is considering more ways to get people connected in the community, 

She said the centre will spend the next 18 months planning pilot programs for a new community centre in Wellesley in 2024.