Healthy Living in the North

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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It matters!

This blog was co-authored by Cindy Gjerde (Regional Nursing Lead Tobacco Reduction).

This summer, we want to know what wellness means to you! Share a  photo, story, drawing, or video explaining what wellness means to you for a chance to win a grand prize! To inspire you, we’ve featured regular wellness content on the Northern Health Matters blog all summer long!


Teens. How do we keep them safe, happy, engaged, and AWAY from tobacco, cannabis, alcohol and other drugs?  As a woman who has spent her career working in mental health and substance use services, and as a parent to two adorable little girls, I ask myself this question daily. While there is no script I can give you, there are some key considerations to tuck into your parenting/coaching/teaching playbook.

  • Self-esteem matters: Teens need to feel empowered, confident, and like they contribute and are important.
  • Resiliency matters: Showing, supporting, and guiding teens through tough times teaches them that tough times have an end point, and they have power in how they deal with the tough stuff.
  • Connectedness matters: Encourage teens to be and stay connected to parents, friends, neighbours, teachers, coaches, leaders, grandparents.
  • Safe spaces matter: Safe places are more than ones that are physically safe (although that’s part of it). Mental and emotional health promoting spaces are warm, welcoming of diversity, free of discrimination and violence, places that are substance-free, and encourage young people to be themselves.

    teens boxing

    Teens need safe places that are warm, welcoming of diversity, free of discrimination and violence, substance-free, and that encourage them to be themselves.

Prevent, delay and reduce use

We know that the longer we prevent teens from using substances, the better armed they are in preventing the disease of addiction. We also know that substance use during adolescence can interfere with important developmental changes. So what can we do to prevent them from using in the first place?

  • Talk to them about tobacco, alcohol, marijuana and other drugs.
  • Respond positively to your child’s/teen’s interests.
  • Involve your teen in activities and chores that grow their abilities.
  • Encourage your teen to get a part-time job or volunteer.
  • Support them during their tough times – use comforting language, and affirming statements.
  • Model responsible substance use (if substances are part of your life).
  • Help them learn to make and keep friends.
  • Support them to try new things and keep active.

Resources to educate yourself and your teens:

Things to be on the lookout for:

  • Change in mood or behaviour
  • Change in friends
  • Isolating themselves
  • Dropping grades or loss of interest
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Signs of substance use: smell of tobacco, cannabis, alcohol
  • Skipping school or work
  • Need for money
  • Finding drug paraphernalia in the home

Where to get help:

Visit your family physician or health care provider for a referral/recommendation to local resources such as:

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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