1.1 Mental Health, Illness and Substance Use Among Youth

The Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO) Youth Mental Health and Addiction Champions (YMHAC) Initiative boosts mental health, illness and substance use education and awareness among youth through empowering youth champions. This peer-to-peer impact is so powerful that it helps shifts attitudes from a mental illness focus toward mental health promotion.

By participating in the initiative, you can help create a supportive and resilient school and community environment for youth at risk of mental illness and addiction.

Youth at Risk

It’s easy to diminish the emotional struggles youth cope with, but the journey into adulthood poses unique, complex pressures. At the same time, mental health problems that adults experience, such as depression and anxiety, do affect the young. In fact, youth mental illness and substance use is a serious health issue in Canada. People aged 15-24 are more likely to report mental illness and/or substance use disorders than any other age group (Pearson, Janz, 2013).

The following snapshot of statistics from the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) is particularly alarming considering that many mental health disorders are recurrent and potentially chronic. In other words, many of these children and youth potentially face lifetime challenges.

  • Between 10 to 20 percent of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder;
  • Depression affects 17 percent of youth age 12-19 (which is 3.2 million youth in Canada!); and
  • Canada’s suicide rate among youth ranks the third highest in the industrialized world, and suicide is among the leading cause of death in 15-24 year old Canadians.

There is also a well-established relationship between mental illness and substance use. Youth between 15 to 24 are three times more likely to have a substance use problem than people older than 24 years of age (Pearson, Janz, 2013); and those diagnosed with a substance use disorder have a substantially increased risk for a mental health disorder, including depression or other mood disorders. Similarly, children with mental health problems tend to initiate substance use at earlier ages and are more likely to develop problematic substance use than children without these disorders (Armstrong et al., 2002).

Early Interventions are Key

According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), establishing the foundation for healthy emotional and social development, as well as prevention and early intervention, are key to ensuring the mental well-being of every Canadian. Major health organizations contend that early interventions for youth with mental health issues not only improve quality of life, but provide significant cost savings (MHCC, 2013). This makes sense given that 70 percent of adults living with mental health problems had symptoms that developed during childhood or adolescence (MHCC).

Yet, while mental illness is increasingly impacting the lives of Canadian children and youth, only one in four Canadian children and youth who need mental health services currently receive them (Waddell, C. et al, 2005). One of the biggest barriers to promoting and addressing child and youth mental health is mental health stigma (CAMH, 2013). According to the Youth Services System Review (YSSR, 2013), education and awareness related to substance use, which is important to reduce stigma, has improved, but continued work is needed.

What is stigma? “a social process, experienced or anticipated, characterized by exclusion, rejection, blame or devaluation that results from experience or reasonable anticipation of an adverse social judgment about a person or group” (Martin & Johnston, 2007).

Breaking Barriers with Knowledge

As you learn more about the YMHAC Initiative in the following sections, you will discover that a large component of its comprehensive training (Section Four, Section Five, Section Six) aims to improve mental health literacy of adults and youth involved. Why? Knowledge of mental health and illness can enhance and elevate the efforts of Initiative participants to assist with recognition, support, prevention, early intervention efforts, and, ultimately, resiliency. 

Specifically, the ability to support those with potential symptoms of mental illness is influenced by an individual’s mental health literacy. If proficient, they will most likely be able to manage symptoms.

Mental health literacy requires several components, including:

  • The ability to recognize mental health and illness;
  • Knowledge and beliefs about risk factors and causes;
  • Knowledge and beliefs about self-help interventions;
  • Knowledge and beliefs about professional help available;
  • Attitudes which facilitate recognition and appropriate help-seeking; and
  • Knowledge of how to seek mental health information.

What is resiliency? resiliency involves being able to recover from difficulties or changes – to function as well as before and then move forward. People who are resilient can cope effectively with, or adapt to stress and challenging life situations (Barankin & khanlou, 2007).

To learn more, see RNAO's Mental Health and Addiction Initiative.

For a list of national and provincial cross and inter- Ministry initiatives that support youth mental health in Ontario, see Appendix A.