Youth feeling connected to community dropped during pandemic, survey finds

A new survey done in July during the COVID-19 pandemic asked young people in Waterloo region about their well-being. It found many don't feel connected to the community, are worried about their mental health and feel loneliness.

Only 40 per cent of respondents say their mental health is very good or excellent

A row of four people, each using smartphones, lean against a bright blue wall.
A new survey of young people in Waterloo region asked them about their mental health, discrimination, feelings of loneliness and whether they felt connected to the community. The Children and Youth Planning Council has released the first part of the data from that survey on Thursday. (DisobeyArt/Shutterstock)

Young people in Waterloo region often feel lonely, many don't feel a sense of belonging in the community and just four out of 10 rate their own mental health as very good or excellent.

Those are among the findings of a new survey of 306 young people in the region conducted in July by the Children and Youth Planning Table, which is a region-wide partnership of 600 groups that serve children, youth and families. The results were released Thursday morning.

Alison Pearson, manager of Community Engagement and Planning with Children and Youth Planning Table, says she found the results looking at mental health to be most revealing.

About four in 10 young people (37.6 per cent) who took the survey said they felt their mental health was very good or excellent.

"Over the past decade, in other survey tools asking that similar question, it's been as high as eight in 10 in our community," Pearson said.

Pearson says they don't know yet if those responses are because of the pandemic, although she noted experts have said the long-term impacts of the pandemic on youth and children is unknown at this point.

Belonging 'ties into people's well-being'

Debbie Engel, a co-chair of the planning table, says mental health stood out to her, but also the level of belonging in the community.

The results showed 64.3 per cent of survey respondents said they felt a very strong or somewhat strong sense of belonging in the community. That was below the national average of 84.6 per cent reported by UNICEF Canada before the pandemic.

"A sense of belonging within Waterloo region is an area we have been focusing on," she said. "It's important to note that belonging is a core piece of the work that the community as a whole believes really ties into people's well-being and mental health."

Pearson called it a "foundational piece of child and youth well-being" the planning table has focused on over the last year.

Other responses in the surveys showed:

  • 28.7 per cent said they left lonely on a regular, very often or all the time basis. As well, 44.4 per cent said they felt lonely sometimes.
  • 62.4 per cent said they felt supported by families and 68 per cent said they can express themselves to their families.
  • 58.2 per cent said they felt supported by friends while 73.4 per cent said they could express themselves with their friends.
  • Almost half of survey respondents, 44.5 per cent, reported having experienced discrimination in the past year. The top reasons were physical appearance (22.6 per cent), gender (18.9 per cent), age (16.9 per cent), ethnicity or culture (16 per cent) and race or colour (16 per cent).

Future sessions and surveys

The survey was done to gauge how young people in the region are feeling because the planning table says often decisions are made on behalf of children and teens without consulting them.

The survey does have some limitations. It is a small sample size of 306 respondents of young people between the ages of nine and 18 who answered on a voluntary basis. The majority of those who answered live in the cities. As well, 65 per cent identified as female, 65.7 per cent are white and 80 per cent live in two-parent households.

The planning table plans to do the survey again in the spring of 2021 and these results will serve as a baseline for future responses.

In the coming weeks, the planning table will release more results from the survey looking at other experiences.

This fall, the planning table is planning to hold sessions to talk to young people about their lived experiences to better understand the stories behind the data, Pearson said. Young people are invited to take part in that and can reach out to the planning table to learn more.

Hope results spark conversations

Pearson says the information is both for groups and institutions making decisions on behalf of youth, but also for other citizens to help spark conversations.

"We heard from survey respondents that they felt grateful and so appreciative that people were asking them about their well-being and were asking about multiple areas of their well-being," she said. 

She said some parents told the planning table they sat with their child as they did the survey and it led to conversations they might not have had otherwise.

"I think it's an amazing piece of information that our community can use to dig in a bit deeper with the young people that they care about," Pearson said.

Engel says they're asking young people to share their opinions and thoughts.

"This needs to be a tool that walks our talk, that shows them that we're bringing it forward," she said. "That we're going to do something with it and that they can hold us accountable to: this is how they're feeling and so what are we together going to do to change that as a community?"