Mental Illness is one of the leading causes of illness worldwide. Yet many fail to access these resources due to both systemic and personal reasons. It also does not help that individuals continually have to face stigma and discrimination. This was a paper I wrote for one of my health studies courses at UofT – social determinants of health.
Written by: Archana Baleswaran
Mental illness among Canadians is common. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Canada reports that every year 1 in 5 individuals suffers from a mental illness (Mental Illness, n.d.). Mental illness particularly affects the lives of youth in Canada. As it was reported that “70% of mental health problems have their onset during childhood or adolescence” (Mental Illness, n.d.). Anxiety is one of the most common mental illnesses in Canada. According to statistics from 2009, approximately five percent of “youth were diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.” (Anxiety and Youth, n.d.). Though, it is important to note that many adolescents may be facing the adverse effects of anxiety disorders without being diagnosed – these numbers would be higher if this was taken into account. Youth anxiety is not only a burden on these individuals but also their family and peers. Furthermore, mental illness can lead individuals to die earlier than the rest of the Canadian population as it can “cut 10 to 20 years” from one’s life expectancy (Mental Illness, n.d.). Youth facing mental health issues are also known for their higher rates of suicide as these individuals are constantly having to face the stigma around mental illness. Teen anxiety is an issue in society as not getting the proper help from medical professionals can lead to them developing other disorders like mood disorders and eating disorders. The prevalence of anxiety in Canadian youth is majorly due to the lack of social support and poor coping strategies which in turn influences their health.
Evidence on Social Support Networks
Social support networks are one of the core social determinants of health which can adversely affect the health of individuals. The lack of these networks can lead to social exclusion and isolation. Individuals who are excluded do not feel like they belong in the society they live in and feel like they are mistreated by society. Social exclusion can be a result of racism, discrimination and even stigmatisation. Youth who suffer from mental illness are often facing stigma from those surrounding them even their peers. These individuals are often stereotyped as being dangerous, crazy and even reckless when this is not the case. With individuals in society constantly judging them, youth often feel like they deserve the mistreatment. Furthermore, youth facing anxiety are often left with no social support from peers and sometimes even family members. Therefore, it is evident that the stigma surrounding mental illness, in general, is a larger structural root cause of anxiety in teens.
There is a significant amount of evidence supporting the view that social support can influence one’s mental health specifically causing anxiety in Canadian youth. Several studies have found that social support can minimize depression as well as decrease anxiety levels. A cross-sectional study on children and youth done by Kim et.al employed a survey to all participants. In which they found that teen had received the lowest amount of social support among all participants which may have been a result of social stigma as well as the fact that they may lack connectivity to their peers (Kim, et.al, 2017). In addition, the study by Romans et.al, found that individuals living in an urban area reported having a weaker sense of belonging and lower social support resulting in higher rates of depression and anxiety (Romans, et.al, 2010). Furthermore, a study done in Norway concluded the same results. The study done by Myklestad et.al found that “social support from friends was the strongest protective factors against symptoms of anxiety and depression in adolescents” (Myklestad, et.al, 2011). This proves that the stronger ones social cohesion to both family and friends equals the lower risk of individuals developing anxiety (Myklestad, et.al, 2011).
All the studies mentioned above. employ the social model of health to describe the effects of social support networks on the development of anxiety in teenagers. This was effective in helping to understand the adverse effects weak support systems can have on one’s mental health. One limitation of these studies is that they do not touch on other factors that could result in low social cohesion such as gender, or even the environments they live in. Moving forward, researchers can further improve their work by considering the how lack of social cohesion influences particularly anxiety. This will allow for comparison of the effects with other illnesses like depression as, there are currently many articles focusing primarily on depression.
An action taken in Canada to help combat the stigma of mental illnesses is Opening Minds. Opening Minds is a creation of the Mental Health Commission of Canada which aims to address the stigma individuals face with health care providers, youth, work-force and the media. They have created over 70 programs across Canada to help reduce stigma (Opening Minds, n.d.)
Evidence on Coping Strategies
Another social development of health that plays a role in the development of anxiety in Canadian youth is poor coping strategies. When individuals develop good and effective coping strategies one can possibly maintain their mental health. But employing destructive and harmful coping behaviours can lead to one’s mental health worsening. The choices individuals make to prevent illness, cope and improve their life can affect one’s health. Examples of destructive and harmful coping behaviours include, smoking, alcohol abuse and drug use. It is important to note that a larger structural factor is the stigmatization of mental illness as individuals rely on poor coping mechanisms because they are scared to get proper help from professionals due to stigma.
Research studies conducted in Canada have shown that poor coping strategies can influence anxiety levels and health in general. A study conducted by Leslie found that 50 percent of individuals seeking substance abuse treatment have a mental illness such as depression or anxiety (Leslie, 2008). Another study by Bottorff et.al reported that teenagers used marijuana as a mechanism to cope with “difficult feeling such as depression, anxiety and stress” (Bottorff, et.al, 2009). These individuals who used marijuana were not concerned with the possible health risks of using marijuana to cope such as addiction. The study by Rush et.al concluded that there is an increased amount of individuals who rely on substances such as drugs to cope with mental illness in Canada (Rush, 2008). Moreover, in the study conducted by, Stewart et. al, individuals reported using drugs as a coping mechanism to deal with anxiety and depression (Stewart, 1997). The study conducted by Bolton et.al found that “presence of any anxiety disorder was associated with a 21.9% prevalence of self-medication” (Bolton, 2006). In Norway, the study done by Myklestad et. al found that adolescents self-medicate with drugs and alcohol in hopes of it helping them cope with anxiety and various other mental illnesses (Myklestad, et.al, 2011). Lastly, in the study conducted by Schuckit et.al they concluded that individuals with anxiety disorders tend to rely on alcohol to cope their anxiety – which could be a learnt coping mechanism from watching how family members cope with their own struggles. (Anonymous, 2010). Therefore, it is evident that coping mechanisms play a large role in the progression of anxiety disorders.
The articles used above framed their research with the social model of health to help explain how coping skills can influence anxiety levels. One limitation these studies have is that they fail to consider other factors that can determine which coping strategies individuals employ such as gender, socioeconomic status or even social supports.
An action taken in Canada is Mental Illness Awareness Week, which is an annual public education campaign. This campaign aims to help Canadians understand the lived realities of mental illness and the detrimental effects it can have with the lack of support (About Mental, n.d.)
One policy solution to help Canadian youth deal with anxiety is the creation of programs in which would educate individuals on their mental illness as well as provide different strategies for them to combat their illness. The programs would be aimed at teenagers who are currently using poor coping mechanisms such as the reliance on drugs. In these programs’ individuals would learn coping strategies that are more effective and recommended by mental health professionals. Another policy solution is the creation of more peer support groups. These groups would allow individuals to speak about their problems as well as create meaningful relationships with people who understand what they are going through. This would allow individuals to form relationships which in turn results in them having social support and people they can rely and lean on in times of trouble. These policy solutions would be implemented at the provincial and local level so that individuals across Canada have access to them – this would make it equally accessible to all Canadian citizens. This would also result in greater improvements.
In conclusion, youth anxiety in Canada is largely caused by social support networks and coping strategies. The lack of social support networks (peers) results in an increase of anxiety in teens as they feel they do not have anyone to lean on. As well as, poor coping strategies can lead to an increase in anxiety as they can have detrimental effects on one’s mental and physical health. More awareness should be brought to prevalence of teen anxiety in Canada as there is not enough attention on the issue currently. Ignoring the mental health issues of Canadians is not beneficial to the population – instead, more action should be taken to help individuals understand and combat this complex issue.
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Anxiety and Youth – Anxiety Disorder Association of Ontario. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.anxietydisordersontario.ca/anxiety-resource-centre/anxiety-and-youth/
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