Many young people feel lost and alone, without having the skills or support to deal with mental health issues. It takes a special person to make use of those personal difficulties so that others might have an easier time.
Three young women who grew up on Salt Spring have made this step, using their experience to form a group called Mindful Teenagers Affecting Change that is working to improve mental health awareness and coping skills in youth. A survey that MTAC initiated at Gulf Islands Secondary School is now informing several courses of action centered on peer support.
Jessi Cullis, Maeve Newton and Jessamine Vasquez had all faced struggles individually with things like anxiety, depression and loneliness. They found a common bond once they were introduced to each other by teacher/principal Sue Starkey through the Phoenix alternative program.
“It got us thinking there should be someone to talk to,” Cullis said. “We should find out how many other people were struggling and wanted a safe space.”
The group put together their survey and solicited participation at the high school in 2016, receiving responses from around 150 students. The survey asked questions about students’ knowledge and experience of depression and anxiety, their coping mechanisms, and contributing factors such as sleep, social media, lifestyle and obligations. The results were collated in a summary in 2018.
Vasquez said MTAC’s intention was to encourage thought toward physical and mental heath awareness in youth. The survey succeeded in identifying a need, although she said youth don’t always have the language to articulate what they’re going through or what they need.
“What concerned me the most wasn’t that there were so many of my peers dealing with mental health struggles; I knew that would be the case,” said Newton. “What concerned me was how few of them felt safe enough to get help when they were struggling. It’s so important that we are present for our youth and provide spaces and resources for them to process what they’re going through.”
Cindy Clark is a youth counsellor and “navigator” with Salt Spring Community Services who has been meeting with the MTAC group on a weekly basis as a volunteer facilitator.
“One of the things that came out of the survey was a lot of youth wanted to know about stress — what it is and how to manage it. That surprised us,” Clark said.
Out of 130 respondents, 75 said they had experienced heightened feelings of anxiety that prevented them from doing things they wished to, and 39 said that happened on a daily basis. Youth also indicated they are aware of the contributing factors, and of methods of self-care such as breathing — which was named as the top mechanism students used to cope with stress. The most common reason for experiencing stress was homework, while anxiety was most commonly experienced at school, followed by social situations.
“It’s a silent but deadly kind of thing,” Cullis said, noting that youth stress appears to be school-led for the most part, especially with expectations around grades and homework. “There’s no resource to help lift that or cope with that.”