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What BC’s Youth Are Saying about Their Health

New province-wide survey finds mental health, poor nutrition are major struggles for some.

By Katie Hyslop 14 Mar 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is The Tyee’s education and youth reporter. Reach her here.

A new snapshot of the well-being of British Columbia’s youth shows that while plenty of kids are living healthy and happy lives, an increasing number are struggling with mental health problems and poor nutrition.

The 2018 BC Adolescent Health Survey, conducted by the McCreary Centre Society, asks students from Grades 7 to 12 about some of the biggest issues affecting their lives, such as housing and homelessness, poverty, mental health and substance use.

This year’s results show that the majority of kids get a good night’s sleep, don’t use drugs or alcohol, and don’t experience poverty, hunger or abuse.

But it also shows that increasing numbers of youth are not OK, with mental health conditions, inactivity, and poor sexual and nutritional health practices on the rise.

Issued every five years since 1992, the survey helps inform child, youth and family services in B.C. It is also used by media, non-profits and watchdogs like the Representative for Children and Youth’s office to hold governments to account, and has even been cited by the World Health Organization.

“Without centring youth voices, we can’t make the difference that we need to make, because we as adults can’t fully understand what is being called for,” said Jennifer Charlesworth, B.C.’s representative for children and youth, at the survey results launch in Vancouver yesterday.

“We have to hear directly from youth about their experiences, and to tap into the wisdom that they have about what would make a difference in their lives and in the lives of the people that they care about around them.”

Surveys went to random samples of youth in 58 of the province’s 60 public school districts, returning over 38,000 usable surveys, which, combined with new, multi-part questions on sex and gender identity, poverty, and housing, made this survey McCreary’s biggest and broadest yet.

“Probably the biggest change was the gender question went from one question to two,” said Annie Smith, McCreary’s executive director.

“This time we asked a question about the sex that was on young people’s birth certificates, with the option of male and female, and a second question about current gender identity. So that had the option of male, female, neither male or female and not yet sure as how they identified, which we combined into a non-binary category.”

The survey also included an index of youth deprivation, a list of 10 items that B.C.’s kids felt “were most important for them to feel like they belonged.” It included things like spending money, a smartphone, money for school supplies and trips, access to transport, clothes to fit in, and a space of their own.

The survey found that those who lacked three or more items (four per cent of youth) from the index were more likely to go to bed hungry. They were also less likely to feel like a part of their school or plan to attend post-secondary school.

Members of McCreary’s Youth Advisory Council highlighted nutrition (a little more than a third of youth eat three meals a day; one in 10 go to bed hungry); mental health (almost a quarter of females, nearly half of non-binary youth, and more than a third of kids in care have a mental condition); and discrimination as areas of concern for them.

“The statistics around verbal sexual harassment also stood out to us as something that needs to be addressed and highlighted to our peers, because we feel that a lot of youth don’t realize how widespread it is, and that a lot of their peers might experience this type of harassment,” said Chantal Percival, a member of the advisory council.

The council plans to create a poster series for youth regarding these results later this year.

The survey also found that non-binary and female youth are more likely to need mental health help and have higher rates of suicidal thoughts and attempts, but are less likely than their male peers to access help.

The most common reasons for a youth not accessing help were fears their parents would find out or hopes the issue would resolve itself. The issue was more acute for kids in government care, a third of whom identified as Indigenous.

“We found that those in care are less likely to report good or excellent mental health, to feel happy in the past month, and to feel satisfied with their life,” said Quincy Applewhite, a member of McCreary’s Youth Research Academy, made up of 16- to 24-year-olds with experience in care.

The academy will release a report on the health outcomes of youth in care later this year.

“When we looked at the comparisons, we noticed that youth in care were twice as likely to have a mental health condition and were more likely to have a learning disability.”

The quality of sexual education in schools is also an area of concern for both youth and adults who spoke at the launch.

Condom use has dropped (58 per cent vs. 64 per cent in 2008 and 2013) and the pullout method is on the rise (46 per cent, up from 35 per cent in 2013 and 23 per cent in 2008). Youth also complained that sexual education was too focused on heterosexual intercourse.

“Young people are really clear about what they want,” said Smith of the survey results, adding that youth were upset with the focus on heterosexual sex at schools, too.

“[They want] more sex-ed, but not the teacher teaching it — somebody coming in from outside teaching it.”  [Tyee]

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