Raising healthy kids: Mental health a huge challenge for Canadian youngsters

We look at our kids and always worry about the little things: Are they eating enough greens? Do they spend too much time in front of a screen? Are they experimenting with cigarettes? Alcohol? Other drugs? Are they doing their homework? Are they popular among their peers? And the list goes on…

These are all valid concerns, and parents have made a habit of worrying about their kids’ habits, health and happiness much more than their own. Still, as much as we worry about how their current habits are going to impact their long-term prospects, we may be missing a much more pressing issue. One that presents a very real and very immediate threat to our kids’ wellbeing. That issue is mental health.

Because our kids are just that, kids, we sometimes assume that deep down they are happy-go-lucky, and we can unintentionally overlook early warning signs of serious mental health challenges, including anxiety and depression. The latter is especially daunting given the sobering statistics about youth and suicide in our country.

Read: How pharmacists can help patients with depression

Here is a sampling of those stats:

  • Suicide is currently the second leading cause of death among Canadians aged 10-24.

  • Suicide accounts for 24% of all deaths among 15-24 year olds.

  • In 2012, 552 of our youth took their own lives.

  • Canada’s youth suicide rate is the 3rd highest in the industrialized world.

Yet youth mental health is clearly not a top priority for our healthcare system. In fact, it’s estimated that only 1 of every 5 kids who needs mental health support actually receives it. Five percent of all boys and twelve percent of all girls between the ages of 12 and 19 have had at least one major depressive episode, yet there are waiting lists as long as a year for youth in a mental health crisis. As the suicide numbers show, sadly, that wait turns out to be too long for too many kids.

The positive side of the story is that we as parents, teachers, healthcare providers and friends of youth in crisis can do a lot to help them turn the tide. As much as mental health is very much a medical issue, it’s also a social issue, and there are many strategies we can implement while we wait for professional help. The first challenge, of course, is identifying that our kids have a problem, and acknowledging that it’s serious.

Kids, especially teenagers, can be temperamental at the best of times. How do we know when our moody teen is suffering from depression, self-loathing, or even suicidal thoughts? There are a few red flags that anyone can look for:

Feelings: Watch for changes in the way your child talks about things, and their body language. They may show signs of unhappiness, worry, despair or loneliness. But don’t be fooled. Depression can also be expressed as anger, frustration and fear. Frequent crying is possible, but don’t be surprised if instead of tears, you get rage.

Physical symptoms: If your child starts complaining that they are always tired, that they have aches and pains, that they’re having trouble sleeping, or that they get frequent headaches, this can be a sign that they are depressed. Unexplained weight gain or weight loss can also be a warning sign.

Negative self-image: Negative talk is another common indicator that depression might be an issue with your child. If they start calling themselves names or blaming themselves for bad things that happen around them, pay attention.

Changes in behaviour and personality: Depression can be all-consuming for your child, and could cause them to turn away from things they’ve enjoyed in the past, like sports or music. They may even shun their friends.

What you can do if you suspect that your child or a child that you care for is depressed

It’s important to talk to them, to reassure them that everyone has negative feelings sometimes, and to let them know that help is available. Even if you can’t get your child into a youth-in-crisis program right away, your family doctor can certainly refer you to counselors in the community, advise on changes in diet and physical activity that can make a big difference, and of course, they can prescribe medication if it’s deemed necessary.

Open communication is critical in overcoming depression, especially for young people. Children can feel like their problems are unique to them, and may be afraid of sharing their burden with friends or family. If you’ve suffered from mental health issues yourself, or if you know people who have, share those experiences with your child. Just knowing they aren’t alone will help ease their mind.

Mental health, and particularly depression, is a pervasive issue in our society today. The causes of depression are complex. While there is certainly a chemical component that makes some people more susceptible than others, there is no doubt that life has something to do with it too. Hormonal fluctuations in teenagers seem to be a contributing factor to high rates of depression and suicide in this group.

Our research now also reveals a link between mental health conditions and other chronic health conditions. We looked at this relationship in our annual Prescription Drug Trend Report. It reveals that while about 25% of Canadians take medication for a mental health condition, that number goes up to almost 40% for cancer patients and a whopping 57% for MS patients. This mind-body connection certainly requires more study, but the data clearly show that depression can be brought on by life events and seasonal changes.

Indeed, youth mental health is a complex problem, and the solutions are not as simple as pills and psychiatrists, although those things are certainly helpful tools. Cognitive behavioural therapy, for example, is a most useful method for retraining a young brain to overcome negative thinking. In the long term, building healthy kids means building good support systems, reinforcing positive thinking, and keeping the lines of communication open when a kid just needs to let it out. We all have a role to play.

If your child is struggling to communicate their feelings with you, offer them help from other trusted adults, community programs or let them know they can speak anonymously with Kids’ Help Phone. They can phone, live chat or text.

Helping your child cope

There are also several ways to help your child cope with mental health problems. Here are some helpful tips from Kids Help Phone:

  1. Help them take their mind off it by making plans with friends or family

  2. Encourage them to let it out

  3. Ask your child to focus on their breathing

  4. Have them talk about it

  5. Go for a walk, dance to music or do some other physical activity you enjoy. This can help boost your mood and make you feel better (mentally and physically).

Learning that your child is suffering from depression can break your heart. But one of the best things you can do for them is be present, listen (uninterrupted) to them, and let them know you care and want to help.

Still, it can take a toll on you as parent helping your child cope with a mental illness. There is help for you too. The Canadian Mental Health Association has resources available to help you take care of your mental health too.

For more child and youth mental health resources, see below:

For more information about depression, see below: