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‘These stats really scare me’: Survey shows high level of mental stress among Whistler teens

One hundred local students polled in May 2021 Communities That Care survey said they had seriously considered suicide over the prior year 
n-Jackie Dickinson WCSS CTC report screenshot RMOW
Whistler Community Services Society executive director Jackie Dickinson addresses Whistler's mayor and council on Tuesday, Aug. 2.

“I’ll be very honest with you, these stats really scare me. They’re quite concerning in terms of mental health within our corridor.”

That’s one of the messages Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS) executive director Jackie Dickinson imparted on Whistler’s mayor and council Tuesday, Aug. 2., when she appeared in front of the Committee of the Whole to present the results of Communities That Care (CTC) Whistler’s 2021 Prevention Needs Assessment Survey. 

The anonymous survey of Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton public school students in Grades 6 through 12 was conducted in School District 48 classrooms and at Lil’wat Nation’s Xet’ólacw Community School in May 2021, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The results of the Whistler survey, which polled a total of 568 local students, were released in a report last week. 

Among the most concerning findings reported in the survey, said Dickinson, were high levels of mental health issues and stress among Whistler’s youth. When the survey was issued, 100 of the 568 respondents—roughly roughly 18 per cent of those polled—said they had seriously considered attempting suicide within the last 12 months. This was most evident in Grades 6 to 9, Dickinson explained, with “many” students reporting they had even made a plan about how they were going to do it. 

“When we talk about mental health, when we talk about well-being, we have to sit in the uncomfortability of these kinds of conversations,” she said.

However, WCSS’ executive director still managed to find a ray of hope in such a dark cloud.  

“It’s incredibly brave that the students came forward in this survey and they’re telling us something, and now we strongly have a responsibility to do something with that information,” Dickinson told councillors. 

Risk and protective factors 

The survey was designed by Bach Harrison LLC to assess students’ likelihood to engage in a specific set of problem behaviours, as well as students’ exposure to a set of scientifically validated risk and protective factors, the report explained.

The risk factors named put youth at a higher likelihood of engaging in the problem behaviours—for example, substance abuse, violence and delinquency—while a set of protective factors, such as strong bonds with family, school, community and peers “buffer children from risk” and promote success throughout their lives.

“All of those have an important part to play in helping our children grow up in a good environment,” explained Councillor Cathy Jewett, chair of CTC Whistler. “You can’t just point a finger to schools to do a better job or to parents. We also, as a community, have to think about what we’re doing.”

CTC Whistler has been polling Whistler students using this survey since 2003. The data was last collected across the Sea to Sky corridor in 2013. CTC also administered a similar youth survey to Whistler public school students in 2017.

The Whistler survey results are weighed against those from neighbouring municipalities, and against data derived from a database of Bach-Harrison survey results from approximately 970,000 students across North America, referred to as the BH Norm. 

The BH Norm used to benchmark and analyze data from the Whistler survey was last updated pre-pandemic, in 2019, “so the comparisons must be reviewed with this context,” the report points out. 

By the numbers 

Whistler’s 2021 survey findings revealed a higher prevalence of risk factors in the family domain, particularly related to family conflict, exposure to adult antisocial behaviour and parental attitudes favouring antisocial behaviour and drug use. 

Whistler teens also reported having a more favourable view of drug use compared to the norm, while the most frequently reported antisocial behaviour was going to school drunk or high. “This shows up well above the BH Norm,” the report explained, noting that 17.5 per cent of all students surveyed in Whistler had reported going to class under the influence within the past year. Grade 10 students were the most likely to do so, with 42 per cent of respondents reporting attending class drunk or high at least once. 

The most common substance used by respondents was alcohol, with 49 per cent of students reporting that they have drank at least once in their lifetime. The next most frequent drug used was e-cigarettes, with 28.8 per cent indicating use during their lifetime.

The 2021 findings showed rising use for most of the substances across all grades relative to the 2017 survey, with alcohol, cigarettes, e-cigarettes, marijuana and binge drinking all displaying single-digit percentage increases. 

Reported energy drink consumption, meanwhile, increased about 10 per cent since 2017, with just under half of respondents reporting drinking at least one of the caffeine-packed beverages within the past 30 days. 

At least 50 per cent of students surveyed across all grades reported experiencing bullying and cyberbullying.

There were some silver linings revealed in the 2021 survey findings, including a decrease in the average use of alcohol since 2013 and a decrease in the amount of binge drinking reported by all grades since 2013. Seven out of 10 respondents also said they are confident in accessing services in their community related to mental health, while a high proportion (78 per cent) of respondents said they would turn to a parent or relative if they needed help. 

“That trust [being] there is absolutely important,” said Jewett. “But the thing that is a concern is what would the other 22 per cent do? Who would they turn to?”

Plus, the majority of self-reported antisocial behaviours are tracking below the BH Norm, despite the fact the timing of the 2021 survey means the results reflect the strains of living in a mountain resort community dealing with global travel restrictions, strict health protocols, financial and operational challenges, and, for many families, job loss. 

The mental health issues reported in the Prevention Needs Assessment Survey appeared to echo the results of CTC’s Young Adult Survey, which was administered to Whistlerites aged 18 to 30 from Jan. 15 to Feb. 15, 2021, said Jewett, pointing out that pandemic restrictions in place at the time contributed to everything from isolation to increased family conflict to lowered commitment to school.

With the results of the 2021 Prevention Needs Assessment now in hand, the CTC Whistler board’s next goal is to identify which resources already exist within the community and match them up with the factors highlighted by the survey’s findings, “And if we see any type of shortfalls or things that are missing, [we will be] using and developing programs that are research- and evidence-based to help enhance the protective factors within our community and address the risks,” said Dickinson.

Supporting Sea to Sky youth  

The Sea to Sky Foundry Squamish Centre is looking to help promote those community protective factors when its doors open this fall. 

As Jaye Russell, executive director of Sea to Sky Community Services (SSCS) told Whistler’s Committee of the Whole on Tuesday, Foundry is an evidence-based model providing integrated team care and walk-in, drop-in services to young people aged 12 to 24.

Twelve Foundry centres are already up and running across B.C., with seven more—including the Squamish centre—expected to open soon. 

The District of Squamish has partnered with SSCS to help fund those youth services. Since the building housing the previous Squamish Youth Centre was slated for demolition in 2019, the District, in partnership with BC Housing, donated the site for a new Foundry.

Squamish’s youth population “told us they needed a place to hang out … But they also need a place that they could go to for help with the deeper issues,” Russell explained. “So around the corner from our current site, youth can come into the reception and the reception leads into deeper conversations around their mental health and their physical health.”

This integrated hub model of services, “is low-barrier, it’s timely, it’s dependable, accessible—it’s help without a referral,” Russell continued. “And for youth, it means they have the choice—it’s their choice to access those services.”

Plans are to eventually extend the Foundry’s services across the Sea to Sky. “Essentially what the Squamish centre will become is the hub to the spokes that we can potentially provide and expand on up the corridor,” Russell said.