What’s happening to our kids? Why are so many anxious, withdrawn, and on medications? Is it a good thing that kids are talking about how they feel, or have they become too focused on what’s wrong with them and ignoring the advantages they have?

A new report from The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Ontario summarizes results of the 2015 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey (OSDUHS). Over 10,000 students in grades 7-12 participated. While there is much to be concerned about, it’s not clear whether the self-reported mental health problems our children are experiencing are a sign of individual weakness (are they all a bunch of delicate orchids?) or the result of overly stressful environments (are the kids just modern day canaries in the mine, reminding us that children’s environments are fast becoming places where they experience sky high expectations, unstable families, and digital neglect from parents who spend too much time on Facebook). Either way, there is danger ahead as a large number of our kids aren’t going to be able to cope with what comes next.

Are Children Vulnerable Like Orchids?

First, let’s consider our children’s vulnerability. There’s lots of bad news. Sixteen percent report spending a whopping five hours or more on social media (up from 11% in 2013). One in seven have been suspended or expelled from school at least once. One in eight worry about being harmed at school. And 5% say they don’t fit in with their peers. When it comes to physical health just one in five meet guidelines for daily physical activity of a least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous movement each day. Two-thirds spend three hours or more in front of a screen during their free time. Not surprising, a quarter of kids are overweight or obese and less than half (41%) report getting 8 hours of sleep most nights. Five percent go to bed or school hungry. One-third think they are either too fat or too thin. Most of these young people are constantly dieting or bulking up. One quarter report being bullied and one in ten report being in physical fights. Cyberbullying affects one in five students, a number that has remained stubbornly unchanged since 2011.

All of these challenges seem to be causing our kids a lot of anxiety. No surprise then that 17% of our kids rate their mental health as poor, 12% had serious thoughts of suicide and 7% report low self-esteem. Almost a third report high levels of stress and psychological distress. Both conditions have increased over the past few years.

Like delicate orchids, kids can’t do well when they’re being tormented by problems like these. They need help to grow, which means adults who can intervene and encourage healthy eating, good sleep hygiene and less screen time.

Of course, that assumes that there’s a supportive bunch of adults out there waiting to help. That may not be the case. While one in five young people report visiting a mental health professional at least once in the past year (twice the rate of young people in 1999), 28% of survey participants say they want to talk to someone about a mental health problem but don’t know where to get the help they needed.

Are Children Fragile Like Canaries?

It would be easy to simply say, “fix the kids” and offer them more individual attention. That may, however, miss the mark. Maybe this stressed generation of young people are just canaries in the mine, telling us to slow down before we destroy ourselves. Twenty percent of young people reported living with a single parent which brings with it financial challenges and difficulties adapting to a parents’ serial romantic relationships. Nearly half of kids in grades 7-12 have a part-time job, and 5% work more than 20 hours a week. These aren’t the only risks. At least 35% report texting while driving, and among young people in grades 10-12, one in nine report being in at least one car accident in the past year. If kids today are anxious, maybe it’s because their lives are so fast-paced the only normal reaction is to shut down emotionally and hide.

We Ask Kids to Change Rather than Changing the World Around them

It’s particularly troubling that rather than doing something about the stress kids are exposed to, we keep focusing on adapting children to the chaos around them. That means kids are being offered pharmacological solutions to everyday hassles at an alarming rate. One in five young people report taking a prescribed opioid for pain in the past year and 3% have used a prescribed tranquilizer. Perhaps more troubling, 6% report being prescribed medication for anxiety or depression, a rate that has doubled over the past 15 years.  

Despite all this treatment, 5% of students still report engaging in antisocial behavior or violence (though in this case, the rates are lower than two decades earlier). Ten percent of kids play video games more than five hours a day and one in eight show signs of a gaming addiction such as loss of control, social withdrawal and disregard for the consequences of their behavior.

What these numbers mean is that at least half of all children in secondary school in Ontario have at least one serious problem such as psychological distress, antisocial behavior, harmful drinking or they engage in substance abuse. These are problems that adults can influence. But will we?

Is Therapy Always the Solution?

If there is any good news in all of this it’s that we have de-stigmatized mental illness. The bad news, however, is that we may have inadvertently made kids believe that any suicidal ideation or bout of low self-esteem is a warning sign of something much bigger. Have we gone too far with our programs and confused children? Do they self-report such high levels of problems because even normal developmental challenges are being labeled as psychopathology? I don’t have an answer, but it does concern me that children today are so familiar with clinical conditions that diagnostically are not as common as a survey like the OSDUHS suggests.

I could be wrong, though. Maybe all this anxiety is simply kids telling us they need time to breath, play and be kids for a while. Or at the very least be given opportunities to show they can be competent caring contributors to their communities (what I’ve termed the 4Cs).

Either way, our children are telling us they are in crisis and we adults need to respond.

Caregivers Can Foster Resilience

Rather than just teaching kids about mental health, I’d like to see more work with parents and caregivers to create environments around kids that foster resilience. That means giving kids appropriate structure and expectations, along with natural consequences so they can solve problems themselves. That means creating safe homes and schools and not over-reacting when bad things happen. A fight between two children is not always bullying. And few mean comments online is not cyberbullying. Test anxiety is seldom a disorder. And low self-esteem may need a cuddle with a loving grandparent rather than formal therapy.

For more severe and prolonged exposure to stress, or symptoms that persist and cause a child to disengage, therapy is likely the right course of action. But before we adults shuffle kids off to treatment, maybe we need to first ask ourselves if the vulnerability our children experience could be fixed with some commonsense parenting and a more sensitive community.

Whether our kids are turning into orchids or canaries, the solution is much the same. Create fertile and safe, nurturing environments in which children can grow and children may have the resources they need to shake their dependency on therapeutic and pharmacological solutions to life’s smaller challenges.

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