A positive state of mental health and wellness in youth sets the stage for their healthy transition to adulthood. Positive mental health among youth is associated with a greater likelihood of completing school, healthier social relations, higher levels of self-confidence, better income potential and greater resilience.
Mental health refers to an overall state of well-being involving thoughts, feelings and emotions, whereas a mental illness denotes a specific condition, such as depression, anxiety, an eating disorder or schizophrenia. In about 70% of cases, symptoms of mental illness begin before age 18, highlighting the importance of early diagnosis and treatment. About one in five Canadians is affected by a mental health illness by the time they reach age 25; however, many youth experience barriers to accessing mental health care services.
“Youth” is defined as the period between childhood and adulthood, generally encompassing the ages of 12 to 25. However, different organizations report on different age ranges. The age ranges below reflect those reported in the works discussed. This document focusses on the mental health of youth prior to the COVID‑19 pandemic. The impact of the pandemic on the mental health of Canadians is discussed in a separate Library of Parliament publication that had not yet been published at the time of writing this HillNote.
Overview of the State of Mental Health of Youth in Canada
Mental Health of Canadian Youth
According to Statistics Canada data from 2019, fewer youth aged 15 to 30 self-reported their mental health as “excellent” or “very good” compared to all other age groups. Among them, females and youth living in lower-income households reported having positive mental health less frequently.
Figure 1 shows that the self-reported positive mental health of Canadian adolescents aged 12 to 17 declined from 2015 to 2021. The decline is more pronounced among adolescent females than adolescent males.
Figure 1 – Perceived Positive Mental Health (Very Good or Excellent) Among Youth Aged 12 to 17, by Sex, from 2015 to 2021, Expressed as a Percentage
Note: Data for 2020 and 2021 were collected during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Source: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament using data obtained from Statistics Canada, “Table 13-10-0096-03 Perceived mental health, by age group,” Database, accessed 18 October 2022.
Data from a survey taken in 2017–2018 on the health and well-being of adolescents in Europe and Canada suggest that positive mental health tends to decline as adolescents get older. The analysis of a 2020 cross-national research study of Canadian youth aged 11 to 15 revealed a higher prevalence of hopelessness, loneliness and nervousness, and a lower level of self-confidence among youth in grade 10 (Secondary IV) than youth in grade 6. In all cases, girls reported having positive mental health less frequently than boys.
Factors other than age and gender have been linked to poorer mental health among youth, including:
- food insecurity;
- homelessness, trauma or violence;
- recurrent pain or sleeping difficulties;
- being a member of the 2SLGBTQI+ community;
- family history of mental illness; and
- screen time and problematic social media use.
Mental Illness and Access to Care
The 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) included a special survey on mental health. It found that youth aged 15 to 24 were more likely to have a mood or substance disorder compared to respondents in older age groups. An analysis of CCHS data from 2011 to 2018 found that the prevalence of anxiety and mood disorders was increasing among youth aged 12 to 24. Further, from 2016 to 2020, a corresponding rise in prescribed mood stabilizing and anxiety medication was seen for youth aged 5 to 24, according to data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information, with rates of prescription for females two times higher than for males.
The 2019 Canadian Health Survey on Children and Youth found that among youth aged 12 to 17, 7.4% were diagnosed as having an anxiety disorder, 3.8% had a mood disorder and 0.6% had an eating disorder.
According to a 2018 review of access to and quality of care available in Canada, despite the prevalence of mental health illness in youth, access to appropriate mental health services is inadequate for many young people. Only one in five youth in need of mental health services receives appropriate treatment as they transition to the adult health care system. Marginalized populations and youth living in rural and remote areas are more likely to face barriers to accessing mental health care.
Poor mental health and mental illness have been linked with an increased risk of suicide. Figure 2 presents suicide rates for adolescents aged 15 to 19, as reported by the member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2019. Suicide rates among Canadian youth were some of the higher rates reported by the OECD countries.
Figure 2 – Rates of Suicide (Number per 100,000 Population) Among Adolescents Aged 15 to 19 in Member Countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2019
Source: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament using data obtained from World Health Organization, The Global Health Observatory, “Suicide rates, crude, among adolescents 15–19 years,” Suicide rates, Database, accessed 21 June 2022.
Suicide was the second most common cause of death of Canadian youth aged 15 to 24, from 2016 to 2020. The suicide rate among male youth was around two times higher than among female youth. However, Statistics Canada data from 2019 indicates that female youth are more likely than male youth to report having suicidal thoughts.
Youth suicide rates are higher among Indigenous populations than among the overall youth population in Canada. Statistics Canada survey data from 2011 to 2016 indicate that suicide rates were twice as high among Métis people and nine times higher among Inuit than among non-Indigenous people. National estimates of youth suicide rates fail to reflect the variability between First Nations communities, where the estimated rate of suicide ranges from 0 to 633 per 100,000 population.
Mental Health Commission of Canada
In 2012, the federally funded Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) published a national mental health strategy, which included a focus on promoting health and preventing illness among youth. Building on that strategy, the MHCC Youth Council produced a version of the strategy aimed at a youth audience in 2016. A 2015 MHCC report flagged the transition of youth to adult mental health care as a priority for mental health policy.
Research Funding for Youth Mental Health
The Integrated Youth Services Network of Networks Initiative by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research funds research aimed at improving the delivery of youth mental health and substance use services in Canada.
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) also provides funding for research on initiatives that promote mental health and reduce risk factors for youth through the Mental Health Promotion Innovation Fund.
In keeping with the 2012 Federal Framework for Suicide Prevention Act, PHAC published a federal framework for suicide prevention in 2016. To combat the high rates of Indigenous youth suicide, Health Canada, in cooperation with national Indigenous organizations, released the National Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy in 2013. In 2016, the National Inuit Suicide Prevention Strategy was developed and launched by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, a non-profit organization working to protect and advance the rights and interests of Inuit in Canada; that strategy is used by Indigenous Services Canada to guide mental wellness services.
Kids Help Phone
The federal government provides funding to support the Kids Help Phone. This mental health service provides free support to youth. In June 2022, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada announced a $2‑million agreement to allow Kids Help Phone to expand its services to Afghan and Ukrainian youth fleeing conflict in their countries.
By Kelly Farrah and Sonya Norris, Library of Parliament