Healthy Living in the North

Youth Mental Health: Routine

During the summer of 2019, we asked youth around Northern BC, “What keeps your mental health in check?”

We used their answers to create four videos, showcasing some of the best ways to gain and maintain strong mental health! Here’s what they had to say about Routine.

Want more ideas? Check out the full campaign materials, or the Instagram campaign! (June 1 – June 30)

Jessica Quinn

About Jessica Quinn

Jessica Quinn is the regional manager of digital communications and public engagement for Northern Health, where she is actively involved in promoting the great work of NH staff to encourage healthy, well and active lifestyles. She manages NH's content channels, including social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc). When she's not working, Jessica stays active by exploring the beautiful outdoors around Prince George via kayak, hiking boots, or snowshoes, and she has recently completed her master's degree in professional communications from Royal Roads University, with a focus on the use of social media in health care. (NH Blog Admin)

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Youth Mental Health: Activities

During the summer of 2019, we asked youth around northern BC, “What keeps your mental health in check?”

We used their answers to create 4 videos, showcasing some of the best ways to gain and maintain strong mental health! Here’s one of their ideas: activities.

Want more ideas? Check out the full campaign materials, or the Instagram campaign! (June 1 – June 30)

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Northern Table: Gardening at Gateway

A short sunflower in a wood raised garden.

This sunflower adds a pop of colour to the garden’s greens.

This summer, my two-year-old son excitedly watched the raspberry bush in our backyard grow as he waited for the berries to turn red. When he tasted our first raspberry, his eyes widened, he jumped up and down, and couldn’t wait to have another! Watching him, I felt a sense of satisfaction, pride, and joy because he’s getting to experience growing and harvesting his own food right in his backyard. Do you know the feeling I’m talking about? The feeling of picking that first berry of the season and enjoying its sweet and tangy taste?

Now, imagine losing that feeling – not being able to take the fresh raspberries from the bush you’ve harvested for years, not being able to enjoy the crisp texture of a freshly picked carrot, or not feeling the satisfaction and joy of growing food for your family.

A hydroponics tower is located in a corner. It has several young plants growing in it.

The hydroponics tower turns “growing season” into a year-round event.

Many residents living in long-term care don’t get to experience these feelings anymore, and may not be able to participate in activities they used to love and found meaning in, like gardening. Backyard gardening or living on a rural agricultural property in Northern BC, and the experience of gardening and growing food for sustenance and pleasure, is a meaningful activity that some people greatly miss. Losing this connection to nature can affect their mental wellbeing. As a dietitian who loves the connection to food, this breaks my heart. At Gateway Lodge (Gateway) in Prince George, we’re helping create an environment where residents can experience growing, preparing, and eating homegrown fruit and vegetables again.

A team of people from the University of Northern BC (UNBC), BC Cancer, and Northern Health received a seed grant to grow vegetables and other edible produce in raised garden beds and a hydroponics tower at Gateway. With the help of residents, our team co-designed a gardening program that includes a shared gardening space between staff and residents, gardening time, and meaningful food and nutrition activities that support the nutritional and mental wellness of residents.

A hand holds a styrofoam cup filled with green smoothie.

A green smoothie, made from veggies from Gateway’s garden and sweetened with store-bought fruit, was a favourite of residents!

One activity that residents loved was making green smoothies from our harvest. We created delicious smoothies with greens from our gardens and added store-bought fruit to sweeten them up and make a vibrant, refreshing green drink.

Residents’ favourite recipe was a combination of greens (kale, Swiss chard, lettuce, spinach), banana, pineapple, vanilla almond milk, and ground flax seed – yum!

I’m thrilled with the opportunity to engage residents in meaningful and nourishing activities through gardening, and we hope to build on the success of 2019 for our next growing year!

Erin Branco

About Erin Branco

Erin is a dietitian who works with residents in long term care homes in Prince George. She is passionate about supporting residents’ quality of life as well as fostering their reconnection to food. In her spare time, you can find her with her family and friends, enjoying a meal, playing in the garden, camping or supporting clients in her private practice. She loves being a part of making positive change in healthcare, and is an advocate for providing best practice nutrition support to our northern communities.

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Youth speak out about mental health

One of the graphics used during the Youth Mental Health campaign. This one says, "How do you take care of your mental health?" There is a silhouette of the side view of a head with a plant growing in it.

We asked youth how they take care of their mental health, and they gave us thoughtful, practical, and useful tips.

We asked — you delivered! During our recent Youth Mental Health campaign (held on Northern Health’s Facebook and Instagram accounts), youth and those who care for them followed along and engaged with energy and enthusiasm. We want to share some of the great ways people are taking care of their mental health. Thanks to all who participated!

Your comments – here’s what you said about how you take care of your mental health:

Communicating

“Communicating how I’m feeling – the good, the not so good, and the downright difficult.”

“Journaling, talking, finding a therapist, daily logs.”

“Reaching out when I know it’s necessary, so I don’t stagnate in a depressed state.”

“Talk to someone – so I don’t feel alone.”

“Express myself and my emotions.”

Goal-setting and planning ahead

“Meet your obligations – regardless of how you feel.”

“I always make it to work and school on time every day. Seems small, but it makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something small every day.”

“Keeping a list of daily to-do tasks (and check them off): showers, medication, guitar, stretching.”

“Plan what I’m going to do after class, and build a routine that works for you!”

Connecting – to people, culture, nature, and animals

“Spend time with goofy people in my life, or people who are generally happy makes me feel better in the long run too.”

“Spending time with dogs — walking them brings them joy which makes me feel good. The exercise also boosts my mood even though it’s not something I like doing.”

“Keep family and friends around who I can talk with honestly and will be open with me. FaceTime, call, visit – connect however you like, but please reach out.”

“Connect to culture, pray or help those in need.”

“Having an amazing social support network that I am an equally supportive person to my friends too.”

Self-Care  

“Not put everyone else before myself. No matter how much you love your peers, you are your number one priority.”

“Make a conscious effort not to isolate.”

“Listen to your mind, body, and heart – if you feel overwhelmed or stressed, respect that or take a break if things are frustrating.”

“Look at my scars and credit myself for what I have gone through and survived. I didn’t give up and it was the best decision I ever made because I would have missed out on the best year of my life so far.”

“Validate my own feelings. What I’m feeling in the moment doesn’t define the entirety of my life or being. It’s not realistic to be happy all the time.”

“SLEEP!”

Invite activity into your day!

“Going to the gym. Exercise keeps me focused, happy and healthy. When I have a stressful day or feel pressure from university, I head to the gym to sweat it out.”

“Stretching, yoga, meditation, team sports – it all helps.”

“Listen to calming music, practice gratitude, draw, read, write, go for a drive, take a bath.”

“Get a new hobby.”

“Cleaning and organizing (a drawer, bathroom, inside of car).”

Treatment/Recovery Work

“Visiting my psychiatrist, therapist, clinician regularly.”

“Mood tracking and keeping thoughts positive.”

“Sticking to my recovery plan (medication regime, activity, sleep, social connections).”

“Taking my medication at a designated time every day to make sure I don’t forget.”

“Keep a journal or notebook so I can keep track of symptoms and possible triggers.”

“Be aware of mood and warning signs of relapse so I am able to take a step back and use some of my tools before it gets worse.”

Other bits of wisdom:

“Different things work for different people.”

“Remember that other people care.”

“Spend time with people who uplift you.”

“Over the years, I’ve tried everything to “fix” myself. I have changed my perspective and realized I don’t need fixing. I was just sick, but not in a way that is easy to diagnose or explain to a friend. After I accepted my mental illness, I retried some of the strategies such as journaling, being more active whether that be walking my dog or going to the gym, eating better and sticking to a routine.”

“Limit screen time.”

The campaign’s toolkit can be found on our website.

Stacie Weich

About Stacie Weich

Stacie Weich is the Regional Mental Wellness and Prevention of Substance Harms Lead for Northern Health’s Population Health team. A passion for people and wellness has driven her to pursue a career in mental health and substance use. The first 10 years of her career were spent at a non-profit in Quesnel. Shen then moved to Prince George to join Northern Health in 2008. Stacie has fulfilled many roles under the mental health and substance use umbrella since then (EPI, ED, NYTC, COAST, AADP, YCOS). In her off time Stacie enjoys spending time with her husband, two daughters, and two dogs, and other family and friends in beautiful northern BC!

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“Don’t judge us. None of us want to die.” A success story of a woman struggling with addiction

Selfie of Teri-Lynn.

“If it wasn’t for naloxone or Narcan, I’d be dead,” she says.

Teri-Lynn was put up for adoption by her biological parents, both of whom struggled with substances. She remembers from a young age thinking she’d done something wrong to not be loved or wanted. This message became deep-rooted as she was moved from foster home to foster home due to abusive environments. Fortunately, Teri-Lynn eventually moved into a great, safe foster home, with people who she still has a close relationship with.

Growing up, she still unconsciously, yet desperately, sought acceptance. She found that despite being kicked out of school, providing THC (the mind-altering ingredient found in cannabis) to her friends was worth it to her. At 14 years old, she became hooked on crack cocaine, a habit she supported by engaging in criminal activity. After three years of experiencing repeated episodes of paranoia and drug-induced psychosis, she hitchhiked with a friend to the downtown East side of Vancouver and soon began using heroin and fentanyl.

This cycle of stealing and other criminal activity continued until her 18th birthday, when she became pregnant. She did her best to cut back on her use, to “do right by her baby,” but after a year, this lifestyle was too much and after one hit, she was hooked again.

She became re-entrenched in a life of stealing and other criminal activity to support her substance use habit. During that time, nurses, shelter staff, strangers, and mental health workers revived her 22 times.

“If it wasn’t for naloxone, I’d be dead,” says Teri-Lynn. “I was tired of having seizures, going to jail, being on the psychiatric unit for being suicidal, seeing cops outside my window, hiding in the closet because I was so paranoid, going to detox three times and treatment three times.”

After being on the methadone program for three years, fearing she’d overdose due to ongoing polysubstance use, she made the move back to Fort St. John with only a 4-week prescription.

After connecting with the Fort St. John Northern Health mental health office, she was immediately accepted into the Opiate Substitution Treatment Program (OSTP) and began working with the staff and Dr. Ohiaeri (now the Northern Health Medical Lead for Addiction in the Northeast).

Opiate Substitution Treatment provides clients with methadone or Suboxone to provide stable, long-acting relief from withdrawal and cravings. These medications replace the heroin or fentanyl that’s causing the problem with a regular dose of medication, which allows for a stable life.

During the intake process for the program, she was diagnosed with Hepatitis C and knew that changes needed to be made.

“Dr. Ohiaeri understood how hard it was for me, but still called me out when I told him I wasn’t clean. At first I didn’t like him, but looking back that’s what I needed,” says Teri-Lynn.

She recalls how the Women’s Resource Society and the mental health office helped her navigate the medical system, which had previously looked down on her and judged her. She found the staff to be open-minded and caring.

She was placed on medical disability due to a seizure disorder and things started to look up. She had stable housing and a regular income and was ready to make some big changes. She joined Narcotics Anonymous, working the 12-step program and going to church. These agencies provided some much needed support and acceptance.

It was at this time she requested to be transitioned into Opiate Agonist Treatment (OAT), with the intention of coming off medication altogether. This program supports clients with opioid use disorder by using a harm reduction approach and providing overdose survival training, take home naloxone kits, and opioid agonist therapy (buprenorphine/naloxone or methadone). Opioid agonist therapy works to prevent withdrawal and reduce cravings for opioid drugs. People who are addicted to opioid drugs can take OAT to help stabilize their lives and reduce the harms related to their drug use.

Teri-Lynn characterizes this decision as “the best thing ever. It helped me stay clean. Everyone should be offered it. I started on 32mg and within three months was down to 2mg. I’ve been off for 30 days and I don’t have any cravings. These past several months have been the first time in my life I’ve been motivated, happy and healthy. I’m even working part-time as a cashier at a local fast food establishment.”

She has reconnected with her 13-year-old daughter, who lives full-time with her father, and has recently been granted custody of her 5-year-old daughter, four days a week. She is slated to go to court in the near future, with the support of the foster mom, to ask for full custody. Teri-Lynn was also referred for Hep C treatment and is now cured.

Her advice: Have naloxone at shelters, Women’s Resource Centre, Mental Health Centres, hospitals, and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Make access to naloxone easy. Have peer volunteers providing clean needles, naloxone kits, and candy for people on the streets.

“Don’t judge us. None of us want to die,” says Teri-Lynn.

Teri-Lynn has naloxone kits in her car, her house, and her purse.

“If it wasn’t for naloxone or Narcan, I’d be dead,” she says.

She currently holds a General Service Resource position with Narcotics Anonymous, chairs meetings, and advocates opiate substitution treatment to her peer groups.

If you or someone you know needs help, go to the Northern Health Mental Health and Substance Use webpage, the overdose prevention webpage, or call the crisis line at 1-800-784-2433 (1-800-SUICIDE).

Bailee Denicola

About Bailee Denicola

Bailee is a communications advisor in the Primary Care Department and was born and raised in Prince George. She graduated from UNBC with an anthropology degree and loves exploring cultures and learning about people. When not at work, Bailee can be found hanging out with her dogs, building her house with her husband, or travelling the world.

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Talking to our kids: having a conversation does more than you know

(Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Northern Health’s Healthier You – Fall 2018 edition on Youth Mental Wellness. Read the full issue here.)

A man and child throwing rocks into a lake.Lately I’ve been hearing from my colleagues that they don’t know how to talk to their children about mental health issues or suicide in our community. I can relate to their struggle because, although I trained as a clinical counsellor and facilitate mental health workshops, everything I know seems to go out the window when it comes to my own kids and their struggles (and I end up doing the very things I advise against).

One thing I am sure of though, is that there is great value and importance in talking to our kids about the truth of the world. Our boys are 6 and 12 now and my husband and I have talked to them since they were toddlers about all manner of topics that affect them and their community. We have discussed residential school and colonial history, racism in our Northern community, the fentanyl crisis, youth suicide, domestic violence, LGBTQ2 language, social media dangers – the list is endless. I believe that there is a way to talk to kids about challenging topics, in an age appropriate way – and that we should! It’s important to prepare yourself for the emotional impact of discussing a topic that you have a lot of feelings about, for example, self-harm or suicide.

You may have different levels of knowledge about all of these topics, as we do, but I think even if you’re starting from the beginning, you can do so alongside your child (coming from a place of not knowing together is okay!). Find out one or two facts on an issue, and give them some language, so that they can ask questions. Let them know that you’ll share what you know; and if you don’t… you’ll find out.

There may be opportunities in your community that you haven’t considered attending that can spark conversation or ideas with your family about important topics, which may help them shape their opinions on community issues. We’ve taken our children to anti-violence rallies, anti-racism rallies, and Aboriginal rights marches. As always, I’ll run into someone I know there who says, “I should’ve brought my kids!” Even a young child will undoubtedly learn something by attending community events.

For example, domestic violence is something we want our boys to learn about as it’s a reality in our community. Now they have joined the Moosehide Campaign – a campaign to end violence against Aboriginal women and children. If they consider where they stand on issues like this now, and grow up surrounded by people who will stand by these values, we’re hopeful they will hold onto these values as youth and adults.

Kids notice what is going on around them and will ask questions. They may not need to know every detail of difficult topics, like suicides or violence, but you can discuss some of the reasons behind people’s actions, for example, why people take their lives. If we open the door to these conversations, and your children believe you have something to offer and can support them, they are more likely to speak up if they or their friends are going through difficult times.

If you’re not sure where to start, just listen. Your children will give you the opportunity needed to share your ideas and knowledge about the world. Ask them what they know about these things, and share what you are willing to share, in a way that doesn’t frighten them, but gives them a starting point to frame the information.

About Erin Anderlini

Erin Anderlini is the Health Director with the Prince George Native Friendship Centre. The Prince George Native Friendship Centre is a non-profit, non-sectarian organization dedicated to servicing the needs of Aboriginal people residing in the urban area and improving the quality of life in the community as a whole.

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Help is here: Compass and Kelty for all things youth mental wellness

Jointly written by Michelle Horn, Program Manager, Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre and Julie Budkowski, Project Manager, Compass

(Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Northern Health’s Healthier You – Fall 2018 edition on Youth Mental Wellness. Read the full issue here.)

Promotional postcard for Compass.Did you know that in any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental health challenge? And that approximately 75% of mental health challenges begin before the age of 24? Chances are, someone in your life has or will be impacted by mental illness. One of the most important things to know is that mental illnesses are common and treatable; getting connected to appropriate mental health services and supports are a key first step.

Free provincial mental health services

No matter where you live in the province, BC Children’s Hospital has provincial services to make sure your family gets connected to the support you need, as close to your community as possible. These services are free of charge, and available to families, youth, and health professionals.

Let’s highlight two of these great support services: the Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre and Compass.

Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre logo.Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre – Support for children, youth and families

The BC Children’s Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre provides mental health and substance use information, resources, help with mental health system navigation, and peer support to children, youth, and their families from across BC.

It can be difficult to know who to talk to or where to get help when you’re worried about a child in your life. The non-judgmental and compassionate staff at the Centre includes parent and youth peer support staff who have personal experience, either themselves or in their families, with mental health challenges. They are here to listen, support, encourage, and provide resources and options for support and treatment in your community. Whether its information, resources, or a listening ear you’re looking for, the Kelty Centre is here for your family.

You can reach the BC Children’s Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre by calling the toll-free number 1-800-665-1822, emailing us at keltycentre@cw.bc.ca, or visiting the Kelty Mental Health Health website.

“Thank you very much for taking the time to listen, your kindness, and getting back to me so promptly with the support and information. This is appreciated.” – Feedback from a parent who contacted the Kelty Centre

Compass – A provincial resource for community care providers

Compass is a new BC Children’s Hospital service for community care providers who are supporting children and youth (up to age 25) with mental health and substance use concerns across the province.  Compass connects community care providers to the information, advice and resources they need to provide appropriate and timely care to children and youth close to home.

The service helps to improve outcomes for children, youth, and their families across BC by providing specialist consultation to the caregivers that are supporting them in their community. When a community care provider calls for a consultation, they receive access to a multi-disciplinary team who can help with diagnostic clarification, medication recommendations, treatment planning, consultation around cognitive behavioural therapy, dialectical behaviour therapy, substance counselling, behavioral issues, family issues, trauma treatment, etc., and general support when things aren’t going well.

Community care providers such as primary care providers, substance use clinicians, child and youth mental health clinicians, specialist physicians, and pediatricians can contact Compass Monday through Friday, 9-5, by calling 1-855-702-7272.

For more information, visit the CompassBC.ca or email compass@cw.bc.ca.

About Michelle Horn

Michelle Horn is a Program Manager with The BC's Children's Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre. The BC Children's Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre provides mental health and substance use information, resources, help with mental health system navigation and peer support to children, youth and their families from across BC.

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Libraries: a place for all

(Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Northern Health’s Healthier You – Fall 2018 edition on Youth Mental Wellness. Read the full issue here.)

A selection of books with LGBTQ2 related themes.When youth use public libraries, they are often searching for fictional narratives with lived experiences similar to their own, or, in some instances, health information specific to their needs and lifestyles. But, health information is not all that LGBTQ2 youth search for when visiting libraries.

Young Adult novels focused on LGBTQ2 characters and narratives are currently some of the most popular titles among all youth. Novels and feature films such Becky Albertalli’s Simon versus the Homo Sapiens Agenda are dominating bestsellers lists this year. Narratives featuring relatable LBGTQ2 characters, including storylines around how they make it through difficult times, can help the reader normalize their sense of self-identity. In a research study from the University of Northern British Columbia, it was found that LGTBQ2 youth, when searching for [health] information, sought not only validity in information, but also a feeling of safety when searching and accessing this highly sensitive information in their lives.[1]

Public libraries are welcoming spaces for LGBTQ2 youth. Youth programs are created without sexual orientation or personal identity in mind. Instead, the focus is on engaging, educating and making sure that youth are having fun, meeting others their own age, and interacting in a friendly and safe environment.

A sign welcoming all cultures, beliefs, orientations, genders, people.Did you know that LGBTQ2 youth are at a higher risk for suffering from issues related to mental health than others their age? LGBTQ2 youth face greater stigmatization and societal pressure to conform to perceived heteronormative expectations and, in turn, are more likely to internalize their struggles, putting their mental health at risk.

This stigmatization is generated by a variety of factors, including:

  • Popular culture perpetuating heterosexual norms – e.g. boys and girls dating, getting married, etc. – and sensationalizing non-heterosexual experiences.
  • Lack of mental health and general health information directly oriented toward LGBTQ2 members in communities.
  • Fear of coming out and concern about not being accepted by friends, family, and social groups.

By providing inclusive spaces, like the public library, that are accepting of everyone, regardless of their personal identity or sexual orientation, we can support their mental and physical safety.

Safe and inclusive spaces prevent stigma, by providing youth with a neutral ground where they can be themselves. These spaces can exist anywhere, whether it’s a school classroom, workplace, or the family household. Creating these spaces is achievable as long as the adults and mentors in the lives of these youth take the time to advocate for their basic needs.

These principles are applicable in any environment. Public libraries are a great example of how these values can be applied to a diverse and complex environment, as the mandate of many public libraries is to meet the basic needs of each and every patron.

Encouraging LGBTQ2 youth to embrace safe and inclusive spaces all around them ensures they have areas of solitude where acceptance of all identities is guaranteed, and where they can be themselves.

Contact your local libraries and see what resources and information is available for LGBTQ2 youth; you may be surprised what you’ll find!

Here’s how you can help!

When creating inclusive spaces, it’s important to recognize some general principles that help establish the space as welcoming for LGTBQ2 youth, including:

  • Using inclusive language and proper gender pronouns (e.g. they/their rather than he/she)
  • Encouraging open and accepting attitudes
  • Providing basic education & understanding of various gender identities and sexual orientations
  • Providing youth with opportunities to explore the lived experiences of others like them via books, television, web, or guest speakers

 

[1] Hawkins, Blake. 2017. Does Quality Matter? Health Information Behaviors of LGBTQ Youth in Prince George, Canada. Presented at 80th Annual Meeting of the Association for Information Science & Technology, Washington, DC. Oct. 27-Nov. 1, 2017.

About Christopher Knapp

Christopher Knapp is the Teen Librarian at the Prince George Public Library.

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Filling the empty vessel of potential in today’s youth

(Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Northern Health’s Healthier You – Fall 2018 edition on Youth Mental Wellness. Read the full issue here.)

“I dunno, hangin’ out.”

I hear this a lot when I ask youth what they do for fun. It’s a regular part of my mental health assessment at the Foundry Youth Wellness Centre in Prince George. It’s a huge red flag for me. Conversely, when I hear things like, “I’m on the volleyball team,” “I go to youth group,” or “I play guitar,” I note these as protective factors that support positive health outcomes in youth.

Silhouettes of people jumping against a sunny sky.

The experience of being a teenager

The teenage years are a time of massive inner change and growth and the brain is beginning to lay down some serious tracks of development in areas that will define the rest of a youth’s adult life. It’s a time of self-discovery and identity formation; when youth begin to question what kind of a person they want to be, who they identify with, and what they stand for. It’s also a time when their brain is craving rewards in brain chemistry on a level that will never be surpassed in any other stage of life. And it’s a time when one feels invincible and invulnerable to accidents or physical pain!

At this stage, we tend to see high risk, adrenaline-producing behaviors, with apparent lack of regard for the dangers. The highs and lows of life are intense, and all-consuming. Most of us can relate to the music we listened to as teens as being the most impactful and moving music of our entire life. We feel the music more intensely then, than any other time in our life!

Playing an instrument, fine tuning a slap shot, or learning a new language are all examples of things that our youth are working in earnest to develop and master. They’re things that require focus, patience, vulnerability, and creativity. They help enhance one’s sense of self, provide a platform to stand on, and complete the sentence, “I am…” They provide places to both input passion and output frustration.

In the absence of more positive activities to fill the vessels of potential, youth wander into other things – or other things will find them. While harmless in many youth’s lives, social media and gaming can become obsessed over. Drugs are often first introduced at this stage of life. Gangs become more prevalent too, preying on young people who lack a sense of community or belonging, or a strong sense of self.

However, we know that the pathways youth take can veer in many different directions, and everyone, at any time is capable of positive change. We are also keenly aware that as the brain develops, it becomes familiar with what it experiences, and more deeply tied to both the positive and negative familiarities. It consumes what it is fed.  

Above all, parents want the best for their children, and for them to grow into healthy, happy, functional adults. See the side box for ways you can help make the transition from adolescence to adulthood as positive as it can be.

Here are some ways to help guide our children through adolescence into adulthood:

  • Get active! Try to involve your child in the activities that interest you, or that they show an interest in. The earlier the better, but it’s never too late to try something new.
  • Turn off the screens. If there is a screen to stare at, it becomes very hard to gather the motivation to get outside, or get involved in something active. Set up the house so that it is more fun to be out of it than in it.
  • Talk about what used to be thought of as taboo topics such as mental health, drugs, and alcohol openly. Be prepared to listen and hear the perspectives of children and youth without closing the door to conversation with advice or judgment. Portray the message that it is safe to discuss difficult things, and give youth time to come around. When they are ready, if they feel safe, they will talk.
  • Cheer them on. Though they don’t admit it, youth want to make their parents proud. Watch their games/recitals, bring the whole family, or become a coach/trainer/mentor.
  • If you know of a young person aged 12-24 who is struggling with mental health concerns, consider The Foundry as a resource.
Josh Van der meer

About Josh Van der meer

Josh is a Mental Health and Addictions Clinician who splits his time between the Early Psychosis Intervention Team and the Foundry Youth Access Clinic. He primarily works with youth and young adults. In his spare time, Josh likes to be somewhere outside with his wife, daughter and dog. Josh likes to speed skate in the winter, and play ultimate Frisbee and mountain bike in the summer.

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More than just body parts: connecting the dots between mental & sexual health

(Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Northern Health’s Healthier You – Fall 2018 edition on Youth Mental Wellness. Read the full issue here.)

I recently read a statement that resonated deeply with me. In an article called Sex Ed, Broken Hearts and Mental Health, written for Sexual and Reproductive Health Week (2018), the first sentence read: “Sexual health is not just about our body parts. The youth I work with understand this inherently.”

This is so true. There is much more to our sexual heath than just our body parts, but often when we think about sexual health, the first things that come to mind are sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and contraception – if only it were so simple.

We don’t often think about the important connection between mental health and sexual health in our everyday lives. Youth are particularly affected by this vast list of connection points: puberty, crushes, relationships, first loves, broken hearts, coping, anxiety, gender identity, gender expression, value clarification, body image, consent, stigma, STIs, birth control, self-discovery… the list itself is overwhelming!

Young people have a lot of things happening at once; I saw this first hand while working in a youth wellness clinic at a local high school. Many students came looking for sexual health services and almost all of them had questions or concerns that related in some way to mental health. It’s nearly impossible to talk about sexual health without discussing mental health.

The green and blue sex sense logo.

Reducing stigma

It’s important to acknowldege that sexual and mental health are two sensitive health topics that people often find difficult to talk about. Because of a lack of awareness and misunderstanding, these topics are often surrounded by stigma – even with ongoing public education efforts to address perceptions.

Stigma can lead to negative mental health outcomes, feelings of shame, isolation, and negative self-image. These feelings can act as barriers that prevent people from accessing the care and support they need. How scary for a young person to be experiencing so much and not be able to talk about it openly and honestly without fear of judgment!

 So, how can we help reduce stigma and support positive sexual and mental health?”

Being “sexually healthy” requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence.

Together, we can reduce stigma and help youth make informed and responsible decisions about their sexual and mental health. We can do this by building resiliency, increasing confidence, providing education, listening, and encouraging social connectedness.

Youth are entitled to positive and affirming health care that routinely and proactively meets the needs of their mental and sexual health. A big step towards achieving this is providing open safe spaces to talk about both. As parents and caregivers, we can help create this environment by becoming “askable adults.”

Talking matters: Be an askable adult

An askable adult is an approachable, non-judgmental source of reliable information for children and youth. This is a person that is easy to talk to, listens, respects a person’s right to privacy, and respects the right for a child or teen to feel the way they do. As children enter their teen years they start to turn to their friends for answers and information – often unreliable or inaccurate sources. Being as askable adult will help them know they can come to you whenever they have questions or curiosities.

While it may not seem like it at times, teens do care about what we say and do. Here are some tips to help make open, honest, give-and-take conversations about sexuality and mental health a normal part of family life:

  • Reflect on your upbringing. By thinking about the quality and nature of your experiences growing up, you may discover it is easier to respond to questions and find opportunities to start conversations about sexual and mental health.
  • Talk about sexual and mental health at an early age. And remember: it’s never too late to start.
  • Use correct vocabulary. By doing this, you will normalize the conversation and enhance the clarity of the discussion.
  • Watch for teachable moments. Talk about and help them understand issues as they come up in TV shows, movies, ads, music, social media, the community, and your (and their) social circle.
  • Provide resources. Provide information to youth about sexual health services and support so that they know where to go if they need help. Have resources like books in your home where your teen can get the right information.
  • Remember, you don’t have to know it all. Be an active learner yourself. Your teen will teach you just as much as you teach them. Look to your community for resources and information sources.
  • Encourage your teen to talk about their thoughts and ideas. An open exchange of ideas can help clarify the values you each hold.
  • When your teen asks you a question, do your best to answer it at the time. If you don’t know the answer, suggest that you find out together, or tell them you’ll find out and get back to them. Don’t put it off, as they might think that it’s not an okay topic, or not important enough to talk about.
  • Demonstrate responsible, health conscious decisions and behaviour. Show what healthy relationships and lifestyle choices look like by living them yourself.
  • Play the what-if game. Ask situational questions like, “What if you/your partner/your friend got pregnant?” or “What if your friends asked you to do something you weren’t comfortable with?” Do your best not to judge their responses, but do talk about the possible consequences of their choices and actions.
  • Stay away from scare tactics. Instead, encourage comfort and openness about sexuality; you want your children to experience sex as a positive, joyous part of their adult lives. Always be honest and open.
  • Speak to them as a mature person. Use correct terms to show that you respect their age and knowledge. Respect their views and feelings.
  • Recognize that you can’t control all of your teen’s actions. Assure your teen that there may be times you don’t approve of their actions but you’ll always support them and will always love them unconditionally.
  • Listen and stay calm. It’s important to deliver the message that they can talk to you when they need to and that you won’t get mad.
  • Repeat often and have fun! Repeating your information and messages serves several purposes. It helps to create normalcy around the subjects of sexuality and self-care. It also opens the door for clarification and more questions and reinforces your commitment to supporting and encouraging your child.

We know mental and sexual health are integral to overall health and well-being. We also know that health practices established in adolescence impact health into adulthood. Together, as parents and health care providers, we can influence the long-term health of our youth by being approachable, open, askable adults, and arming our children with the tools and knowledge they need to make informed and responsible decisions as they mature.

Shellie O'Brien

About Shellie O'Brien

Shellie grew up in rural Newfoundland and moved to B.C. in 2003. After graduating from the nursing program at Thompson Rivers University in 2007 she moved to Prince George to start her career. She has a passion for population and public health and is the Regional Lead for Sexual and Reproductive Health. After falling in love with the north she purchased a rural property and began to build her hobby farm and family. She enjoys the outdoors, animals, recreational dogsledding, reading, and healthy living. When not at work, she can be found happily doing something outside on her farm with her family.

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