The Sunday Edition

The mental health crisis among young Canadians

Depression, anxiety disorders, self-harm and other mental health issues seem to plague young people as never before. A peer support facilitator, a psychiatrist and a therapist discuss the factors driving the rise in mental illness among young people, as well as the help and support, or lack thereof, available to young people in crisis.
L to R: Amy Gajaria, a child and youth psychiatrist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health; Daphnée Lévesque, a peer support facilitator and student at UBC; Angie Holstein, a therapist who works with teens and university students. (Submitted by Amy Gajaria | Submitted by Daphnée Lévesque | Jeff Speed Photography)
Listen43:01

This week, students at the University of Ottawa learned that one of their classmates died by suicide. It is the fourth such notice U of O students have received since April of this year.

The University of Toronto recently installed safety barriers at a campus building where three students died by suicide in a period of 18 months.

At both universities — and on campuses across Canada — students have channelled their grief and rage into full-throated calls for change.

"Sometimes it feels like we're incredibly isolated as people and that we have to do things on our own," says Marium Vahed, a U of T student and co-president of How Many Lives — a movement and organization focused on pushing for solutions to the mental health crisis on campus.

Sometimes it feels like we're incredibly isolated as people and that we have to do things on our own.- Marium Vahed, student and co-president of How Many Lives

Vahed's best friend died by suicide in January. "Often we feel like we're a burden on others and I struggle with that myself," she says.

Vahed says her friend's death already made her feel helpless. After that, she became aware of other deaths by suicide on her campus. "Before that, I admittedly hadn't paid as much attention to mental health on campus except for my own," she said. "I felt this overwhelming urge to do something about it — to get involved with mental health advocacy to push for change on campus."

This is not just a problem confined to university campuses. Young people, families and front-line workers all say our society needs to reckon with a growing youth mental health crisis.

Rates of depression, anxiety and suicide among young people have all increased over the last decade. In the United States, depression rates among 14 to 17-year-olds have increased by more than 60%.

In Ontario, the number of teens seeking treatment for self-harm at emergency departments has doubled in a decade.

And perhaps most troubling, only one out of every five children who need mental health services in this country receives counselling or treatment, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.

The Sunday Edition's guest host Gillian Findlay spoke to three people about the factors driving increased youth depression and anxiety rates — including perfectionism, isolation, social media, financial precarity and a world that feels unstable and uncertain.

"It's very common for me to hear kids come in with anxieties," says Amy Gajaria, a child and youth psychiatrist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). She's also an assistant professor at the University of Toronto whose research focuses on access to mental health care in low-resource communities. 

"Housing stress is a huge stress for young people and can precipitate suicidal thinking or precipitate self-harm ... We hear a lot of dreams about, 'I just want a place to live,'" she says.

Housing stress is a huge stress for young people and can precipitate suicidal thinking or precipitate self-harm ... We hear a lot of dreams about, 'I just want a place to live.'- Amy Gajaria, child and youth psychiatrist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

"I hear people talking about climate change. I hear young people saying, 'Am I going to have a planet? I also hear a lot of young people not having certainty they're going to have a full-time job. The economics of the world feel very uncertain to them right now.

Therapist Angie Holstein says that she's finding anxieties crop up earlier and earlier among young people, especially when it comes to establishing who they are going to be.

She says she's hearing young people wonder "What's life going to be like for me? What school am I going to go to?" as early as elementary school. 

"I struggled with this my whole life and I mean most of my peers as well," says Daphnée Lévesque, a fifth-year student at the University of British Columbia. Attending a top-ranking university, looking toward graduate school and maintaining GPA requirements also adds to the pressure. "I think the way I cope with it is just trying to be as busy as I can and filling my days with things and not really allowing myself to get a break," she says. There's also a pressure to perfect.

This need for perfectionism is one of the things therapist Holstein sees often in her practice. She specializes in working with teens, university students and their families. 

"Perfectionism is a trait. It's the idea that it's protective against failure," she says. "What it really does is start to impede the ability to be creative." Holstein says that one way in which perfectionism presents itself is as procrastination. That makes it difficult for students to complete tasks. 

To counter perfectionism, Holstein says parents need to teach their kids it's OK to fail and make mistakes. 

"We're seeing a lot of the results of over-parenting — kids who haven't been able to have the experience of building the tolerance for distress," she says. 

We're seeing a lot of the results of over-parenting — kids who haven't been able to have the experience of building the tolerance for distress.- Angie Holstein, therapist

Lévesque says she struggled with her mental health in high school and her parents were worried when she decided to move from Ontario to B.C. to attend UBC. So she sought out counselling on her first day, to make sure she would have the support she needed. 

A doctor suggested that she could benefit from a peer support group, but she was initially resistant. She ultimately gave in and sought out the Kaleidoscope Mental Health Society, founded by UBC students, in her first year.

"It's a space where you can come and feel validated and heard," says Lévesque. "I think that peer support is just as valuable as professional help." Not everyone is ready to go see a doctor or counsellor, but they might be ready to talk to others with similar experiences. "It really makes you feel less alone, like we're all in the same boat," she says.

I think that peer support is just as valuable as professional help.- Daphnée Lévesque, UBC student and peer support facilitator for The Kaleidoscope Mental Health Society

Lévesque is also a Youth in Residence at the mental health organization FamilySmart and works at BC Children's Hospital Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre.

"I help with navigating our very complicated system, and I provide peer support by phone, email or in person. A lot of parents try to find a counselor for their child, and it's like a maze for them. If you don't really know the system, it's hard to navigate."

Gajaria said there's an urgent need for more resources. 

"In emergency rooms we often have people sleeping on the floor, sleeping on mats, because there aren't enough beds. Waitlists can be months to years," she says. 

"[We need] more services that help people navigate the system, physicians more therapists and then ... publicly-funded psychotherapy that is longer-term, so that anyone can access it."

Where to get help 

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, you can contact any of the organizations listed below, or go to a mental health walk-in clinic in your area. 

Kids Help Phone:

  • Phone: 1-800-668-6868
  • Text: TALK to 686868 (English) or TEXTO to 686868 (French)
  • Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca 

Post-Secondary Student Helpline:

  • Phone: 1-866-925-5454
  • Good2talk.ca 

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.

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