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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Time to take a second look in the mirror at our body image

(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.)

Wristbands stating Love Ourselves and Love Our Bodies.

When we turn on the TV or run through our social media feed, we are bombarded with images of thin, fit, photo-shopped, “perfect” people. But is this the norm? And is this healthy? In a recent study, girls, ages three and five, who were presented with dolls of different shapes preferred the thin version, describing the bigger dolls as sad, tired, and having no friends. We think we are immune to media, but even young children are exposed to messaging that implies being in a bigger body is bad. 

The fat phobic society we live in contributes to a negative body image. Body image is our own perception of our physical appearance, including our thoughts and feelings about the way we look. It impacts self-esteem, mental health, and well-being. Negative body image may lead to unhealthy dieting behaviours, the development of disordered eating and eating disorders, and may also lead to feelings of shame, guilt, low self-worth, and unhappiness. It’s estimated that 40 to 60 percent of girls aged six to twelve are concerned about their weight. 

As parents and caregivers, we often encourage our kids to be their healthiest. This may come across in messages about eating, activity, or striving to be a certain body size. While the intentions are good, these types of messages can often be misinterpreted by kids – that there is something wrong with their body and they need to change their shape or weight. If you look around where you live and in your family, healthy bodies are very diverse. Weight is not the biggest, or only, indicator of health. Focusing on well-being and healthy habits is more important than any number on the scale!

It’s important to have age-appropriate conversations with our children about health and body image, and work towards fostering a healthy relationship with our bodies.

How can you support youth to promote a healthy body image?

Be a positive role model. Be aware of your self-talk around weight and food, and get curious about your own beliefs and attitudes about body size and eating. For example, let your child catch you saying one positive thing about your body daily.

Celebrate diversity. Help your child to focus on their own unique qualities and talents rather than appearance as a foundation for self-esteem.

Open up the conversation. Talk about how media can impact our body image, or invite your kids to share how they are feeling about their bodies.

Teach your kids to view media messages critically. Help create awareness of how images and slogans make us feel about our bodies, and talk about how these images do not depict reality. Check out this tip sheet from MediaSmarts to get started.

Eat together. Plan and offer regular family meals as a way to encourage family time and model healthy approaches to eating. Get your kids involved in cooking too – how about a build your own taco or pizza night?

Make meals and snacks enjoyable. Practice an “all foods fit” approach in your home, offer a variety of foods and create a shame/guilt-free space to make food choices.

Take a balanced approach to physical activity. Encourage physical movement that is joyful, and focus on the fun, social aspects of being active. Refrain from teaching your child that activity is punishment or used to compensate for eating.

Explore what health really means to you and your family. Recognize that health is more than the absence of disease or having a certain body size. Health is inclusive of emotional, intellectual, social, spiritual, and physical wellness. Don’t let focusing on one (physical) compromise another (mental). Health may mean something different to you than your child.  Take the opportunity to explore. Plan family activities that promote a balanced view towards health.

If you think that you or someone you love has an eating disorder, please contact the Northern Health Eating Disorders Clinic at 250-565-7479.

Rilla Reardon

About Rilla Reardon

Rilla is a Registered Dietitian working for Northern Health since 2013. Rilla moved to northern BC from the east coast to continue developing her skills as a dietitian in a clinical setting while enjoying all that the north has to offer. Outside of work, she can be found experimenting in the kitchen or navigating the trails around Prince George with her dog, Henry. Rilla channels her passion for nutrition into practice, inspiring others to nourish their bodies, minds and souls with delicious and healthy food!

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Back to Basics

(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.)

What makes some youth thrive? What makes some youth struggle? Why do some youth flourish in the face of adversity while others grab on to higher risk behaviours and means to cope? While these questions are very common, their answers are very complicated and difficult to address. What we know for sure is that both youth and adults have some power to impact their mental health.

One of the ways we can foster positive mental health is by building a wellness plan that really has a back to basics approach. Key pieces include nutrition, sleep, social connectedness, and delayed or safer substance use practices – all of which we can empower youth to consider in their day-to-day lives. 

Nutrition

Adolescence is a time of significant growth. Youth need to fuel their bodies and minds to feel their best. Nutrition education and food skills training are a great way to engage youth in learning about fueling their body and how the foods we eat impact the way we feel both physically and mentally. Taking some time to build breakfast, lunch, and dinner plans into the schedule can have big impacts. Including youth in the planning and preparing of meals can support skill building and provide opportunity for connection.   

Sleep

A good night’s sleep is important for both physical and mental health. The amount of growing and developing underway in the body and minds of youth requires a great deal of rest. The Canadian 24-hour movement guidelines suggest youth ages 5 to 13 should strive for 9 to 11 hours of sleep, while youth ages 14 to 17 should aim for 8 to 10 hours. You know you are getting enough sleep when you wake feeling rested and ready to take on the day. Lack of sleep can lead to challenges with concentration at school, more aggressive or agitated behaviour, and even avoidance of usual activities. 

Social Connection

Youth benefit from social connection to peers, family, schools, and communities. Connectedness that remains intact as they move through the years help them gain a sense of self-identify. It can be valuable for teens to have different groups of friends (e.g. engaging with sports, arts, and education programs), so that if one peer group becomes inaccessible, there are still people around for youth to relate to.  Establishing connection to people and spaces that are diversity-welcoming and substance free goes a long way to support mental health and preventing onset of substance use. 

Substance Use

A primary piece of substance use prevention is delaying uptake of substance use by youth until later in life. We know that the earlier youth begin to use substances, the more likely they are to develop a substance use disorder later in life. Ensuring access to drug education, engaging in/with activities and environments that are diversity-welcoming and substance free, and have access to a full continuum of substance use services is beneficial. Youth should also consider their intake of caffeine or energy drinks along with alcohol, cannabis, and tobacco and consider safer ways to consume if substances are part of their lives. Reducing the amount of substance use, the frequency of use, and finding lower risk methods of consumption, using less potent products will all contribute to a harm reduction approach to substance use.

Resources

For more information on promoting positive mental health in youth, or to find information on specific mental health and substance topics, please visit Kelty Mental Health online at or Here to Help BC at or the Canadian Mental Health Association of BC.

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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