Seeing her friends and classmates in desperate need of mental health support but unable to access it has given teenager Caoimhe-Ann a clear understanding of the stressors her generation faces. “We say this with every generation, but things are getting scary,” says Caoimhe-Ann. “Climate change and being the ones who have to deal with it; the pandemic and knowing you could get sick and die or get sick and my mom gets sick from me. There’s a lot of stuff that is new stuff that affects us.”
As someone who is on the Autism spectrum, Caoimhe-Ann already faces stressors in her life, “Autistic people like myself typically struggle with non-verbal social cues but I’ve always just connected with people older or younger than me, and animals.” Having additional societal pressures has only increased her feelings of anxiety when she thinks about the world she’s growing up in. She is lucky to have a counsellor to help her work through those stressors but also finds her happy place on the stage. As well, the time she shares with her mentor is something she values. “Instead of being exhausted mentally from masking every time I see her, I can just be around her and I don’t have to struggle to try and find social cues,” she explains. “She’s one of the very few people in this world that I feel energized and happy after being around.”
Caoimhe-Ann and her brother, Caolán, are both recipients of mentorship programming in the Cowichan region funded by United Way British Columbia – working with communities in BC’s Interior, Lower Mainland, Central & Northern Vancouver Island (United Way BC). Like many other services for those in need, there is far more demand for supports than they can provide.
At 10 years old, Caolán waited 3 years to find a mentor. “I waited for a big brother and then when I met him, he moved to another province,” he says. “So, I waited a few more months and then got Braeden. It’s nice to hang out with someone older than me.”
A growing need
The past few years have seen increasing instability around the world. Social media and a 24-hour news cycle have permeated our lives and influence how we feel about ourselves and others. For many adults these stressors have had a negative impact on their health and wellbeing, but for an increasing number of children and youth, the toll on their mental health has become a growing crisis.
“Pre-pandemic, we were seeing an average waitlist of 36 children per year. We saw that rise to 84 children per year in 2020. This isn’t entirely reflective of the whole need that was there, that’s just where we could cap the waitlist,” says Erin Generous, Executive Director of Big Brothers Big Sisters in Cowichan Valley. “We need more youth-serving organizations in the area and increased programming to start meeting the demand.”
According to Canadian Mental Health research, 1 in 5 people in Canada will personally experience a mental health problem or illness. Approximately 20% of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder. When it comes to mental illness, youth is a critical period: most people living with a mental illness see their symptoms begin before age 18. Providing mental health and wellness supports is important in helping build the capacity and network for youth before it becomes an illness or something more serious.
Both Caoimhe-Ann and Caolán have witnessed their friends and classmates in need of help but unable to access supports due to the volume of demand and lack of programming. Caolán takes it upon himself to help when he can, saying, “Diverse learners and kids with needs struggle a lot. I see kids in my school that don’t get proper help. I feel sad for them, but I try to help them so that makes me feel good.”
Caoimhe-Ann adds, “I have so many friends who need therapy badly and there is nothing there to help them. I worry for those who don’t have the support.”
Currently, there is an alarming lack of supports for youth in a time when it is most important to their mental health.
Erin adds, “We know that through adverse childhood experiences, that if we’re not able to counterbalance some of those impacts, then we know that we’re going to have troubles with entering post-secondary education, finishing their grade 12 graduation, finding meaningful employment in their future. When we do not intervene early enough then we are putting their future potentials at risk.”
Guiding a path through the stressors
As Caolán will tell you, a negative experience when he was very young has led to underlying trauma and fears. Through his own experiences, Caolán’s mentor, Braeden, has been working with him to shift his perception and deal with the traumatic experience.
“He’s being more vocal about what he wants to do,” says Braeden. “He’s more willing to do different things instead of sticking to the things he knows, getting new experiences as you get out and do stuff. I’d say he’s matured a lot since the year that we met.”
These kinds of mentorship programs are incredibly beneficial for youth because it gives them a chance to connect with others and learn that they’re not alone in their experiences, their anxiety and/or depression. For many, that alone makes a huge difference to their wellbeing.
Here. For brighter futures.
It is exactly this type of bonding in group or individual mentorship programs that is important to the development of at-risk youth into healthy, resilient adults.
“United Way are like first responders in the sense of being able to provide the supports to the right groups to support those vulnerable populations in hopefully stepping forward into a more positive space,” says Erin. “They have been a pivotal partner in communities across BC and here in supporting the direct effects of mental health – working with those experiencing homelessness, working with youth, working with organizations on the ground.”
Through programming like this, youth like Caoimhe-Ann and Caolán are given a solid base to begin exploring who they are, the world they inhabit, and where they want to go in the future.
As Erin says, “We want kids to grow into the best possible versions of themselves.”
Let’s be here for brighter futures. For kids like Caoimhe-Ann and Caolán. Donate today. For tomorrow.