Fifteen years ago, I sat down to interview a group of elementary school students about stress, anxiety, and other mental health challenges they and their friends were experiencing. This was before Facebook and Snapchat and the insidiousness of social media and smartphones. The fears and feelings they shared with me echoed words I’d heard years before, as a peer mentor in high school, listening to the questions of a 10-year-old girl struggling to understand her friend’s suicide. Youth living with mental health challenges isn’t new. And yet, after all this time, we still struggle to identify symptoms and provide intervention before things escalate to dangerous levels. There are some hopeful advances, though.
This coming week, April 1-5, is Atlantic Wellness Centre’s annual Youth Mental Health Awareness Week. The centre offers free mental health services for local youth ages 12 to 21, and has been operating since 2012. In that time, it has helped more than 1,100 youth, 90 percent of whom say their daily life has improved because of the support.
The theme of this year’s awareness week is ‘build your grit.’ It’s a motto and idea that’s been circulating and gaining strength over the past few years in the youth and social development circles, both locally and beyond. Grit is basically another word for resilience, that quality that allows a person to overcome hardship. We can’t predict what challenges our children (or ourselves) will face in life, but we can try to give people the tools to process emotions and events that could impact their mental health. But it’s not just about teaching meditation and coping mechanisms. It’s also about creating environments in which children feel safe and supported, so that they can build that core grit, like at Atlantic Wellness.
I listened to an interview earlier this month with a pediatrician and researcher, Dr. Thomas Boyce, who has been pursuing a theory that our ability to be resilient is also genetic. He describes about 80 percent of children as being born ‘dandelions;’ hearty souls resistant to adversity. These children, in his research, are often physically healthier, as well as mentally able to withstand stressful situations, compared to the children he classifies as ‘orchids.’ Boyle explains that orchid children experience a quick increase in cortisol levels and the flight-or-flight response to seemingly small stressors (being asked to perform simple tasks, speak with a new researcher, etc.), and that these biological responses also impact your cardiovascular and immune system. A classic double-whammy: your anxiety can increase your chances of falling ill, which can feed into your isolation, and so on.
Boyle shares that the tendency for a child to become a dandelion or an orchid might be evident from the moment they are born and an Apgar test is administered. This is the quick series of observations of a baby’s appearance, pulse, grimace, activity, and respiration that is done at birth. A score ranges from 0 to 10, with most infants scoring seven or above. Babies scoring four and under often require some form of intervention. These children are most likely to be Boyle’s orchids. (It’s not entirely scientific evidence, but I can tell you that our preemie son, born months early and weighing just over two pounds, scored extremely high on his Apgar tests – and he’s barely had a runny nose since and does not give in easily to stress.)
Obviously the path to mental health is not as simple as an Apgar test, a supportive family, or a school-based yoga program. That’s why community resources such as the Atlantic Wellness Centre are crucial to helping both parents and children understand and navigate the complexities of raising resilient individuals. We need to keep getting better at this.