Youth mental health – a very real concern in Canada

The Canadian Mental Health Association reports that, “over half of Canadians (53%) consider anxiety and depression to be ‘epidemic’ in Canada, with that perception spiking amongst younger people.” Among Canadian youth, there is a huge need to address the 1 in 5 who are said to be suffering from a variety mental health concerns including anxiety. In addition, waitlists for accessible counselling services in many BC communities are lengthy, and group programs that help to reduce the stigma and isolation that come along with mental health challenges are few and far between.

How can communities better support their youth? 

The Crystal Pool and Recreation Centre in Victoria, BC, has been at the forefront of developing creative ways of reaching youth and families through an innovative offering called the New Roots Program. Now in its 5th year of evolution, this nature-based therapy program is a model that reflects the true power of community collaboration; bringing together recreation centres, parks, schools, counselling agencies, and non-profit resources to deliver quality accessible programming – all who share a common vision for the program: to create safe, supportive, and healing spaces for youth to build a template for healthy minds and healthy bodies.

New Roots is a 10-week after school program for high school and middle school youth based entirely outdoors. The program focuses specifically on building youth’s resilience and ability to cope with anxiety. New Roots literally goes out of the box (or walls) to integrate counselling, art, nature connection, mindfulness, adventure, environmental stewardship, and family engagement to build healthy habits for self-care.

It does this primarily by building relationships. This begins with the local recreation centre as the main hub, and extends to local schools and a counselling agency (in this case Human-Nature Counselling) for appropriate referrals, parks stewards, community artists, and yoga teachers.

This model, which demonstrates to youth and families that the community cares, has been successfully replicated in various municipalities throughout the Saanich Peninsula of British Columbia (Victoria, Saanich, and North Saanich).

Not just talk: Learning through skill-building

New Roots is an experiential program – meaning that we are inviting youth to challenge themselves and practice new skills, not just talk about the skills that may be helpful.  Activities that teach and practice mindfulness awareness skills (such as belly breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and yoga) are woven throughout the 10 weeks of experiential programming.  For those youth who find introspection difficult, the program also provides opportunities to practice external sensory awareness as a path to calming the nervous system through exploring the natural world with all our senses, and through play.

The other skill-building happens in the form of psycho-education focused on topics of stress and anxiety, which we deliver through active games in order to maintain the interest and engagement of youth. Lastly, youth also learn about the local ecosystem, specifically the impact of invasive species.

One of the ways the youth participants get to give back to their community and lands on which they play is by participating in a dynamic nature art project, led by community artist Carolyn Knight. This includes working with the local park stewards to pull invasive English Ivy, and then transforming the Ivy vines into beautiful weaving creations – representing the transformation of negative intrusive thoughts into hopeful and positive ones.

Parents: a key ingredient to success

Another key ingredient to the success of the New Roots Program is the involvement of parents in the change process. Parent-support sessions take place three times throughout the program to allow parents a space to learn about anxiety, stress management, and how to best support their youth. Overwhelmingly the feedback from parents is how much they appreciate the chance to share with other parents, the benefit of finding similarities within their experience, and being able to access the tools they need to better support their teens.

The culmination of the program includes a 4-hour gathering that brings all the families together (including participating youth, parents, and siblings) to share food, experience voyager canoeing, and celebrate by a fire to honour the courage of the youth participants.

Having an impact: Fostering safe spaces for youth and their families

Throughout the progression of the program, both youth and parents often express a positive impact on their quality of life – especially in the area of connectedness and social support.  Many of the participants of New Roots are socially isolated due to struggles with anxiety, ADHD, learning disabilities, and negative past experiences in counselling or in groups.  What became clear to us in delivering this program was the powerful impact that fostering a safe group experience had on youth –  to learn that “I’m not alone” in my challenges.

As can be heard in the words of one New Roots parent:

“I feel like I won the lottery by enrolling my son in this program. He is better able to express himself, regulate his emotions, and pursue healthy ways to reduce anxiety. This will have a life-long positive impact on my child’s well-being and health.”  – parent testimonial.

Recreation Centres fostering mental health

Recreation Centres have a unique opportunity to be a hub for fostering mental well-being through their ability to connect various sectors of the community towards a common goal.

We would love to see this model replicated in more communities across BC, and for nature-based group programming to be viewed as a viable option for health authorities to invest in (the recent year of the program was funded by an Island Health grant).

About the author:
Katy Rose is co-founder of Human-Nature Counselling and has been creating and facilitating nature-based therapy programs and services for children, youth and families in the Greater Victoria area for over 11 years.  She is passionate about the healing power of the natural world, and is a Registered Clinical Counsellor in BC.


For more information: Please contact Shelley Brown at Crystal Pool and Fitness Centre  by email, or call 250-361—0705.

To apply to this program: please contact Katy by email, or call or text 250-857-6017. After your expression of interest you will be emailed an intake form and detailed program information. A time with then be set to meet briefly with each youth at your location of preference – either at or near your school or at the Recreation Centre (Oak Bay, Crystal Pool, Commonwealth Place, etc).

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