Wellstream: Safe strategies for youth and teens

Although population data studies indicate the prevalence of mental health and substance use among youth and teens has been relatively stable over the past years, there has been a worrying increase in the harms related to substance use.

In the face of these challenges, Wellstream: The Canadian Centre for Innovation in Child and Youth Mental Health and Substance Use at the University of British Columbia is working to foster collaboration and cooperation between education, health, community, parents, and youth and teens.

“The current approaches are not successful – they are not resonating with them [youth and teens] with what their needs are for information and support,” says Emily Jekins, a registered nurse, associate professor in UBC’s School of Nursing, and the Canada Research Chair in Population Health Approaches to Mental Health and Substance Use. She is also founder and scientific director ofWellstream.

Jenkins emphasises that abstinence and “just say no” campaigns or scare and fear-based messages are not effective.

Emily Jekins.

“Youth and teens want meaningful conversations, to be included and seeing what their peers are doing and what they are experiencing themselves – the opportunity to thoughtfully discuss important challenges with substance use and navigating their own decision-making. When the conversation is closed off, that it won’t be tolerated, they lack places to go for support,” she says.

“This new initiative to develop national standards for K-12 schools is based on a decade plus of research on substance use and the reasons for use and how they make decisions and how we can reduce the harms for them and their communities”.

For Jenkins, real collaboration, dialogue, and cooperation are needed to assist youth and teens, and to have their voices heard.

The need for new approaches

“With the national standards, we are working to reflect youth needs, the education sector has to get this right,” says Jenkins. “Historically, the health sector has come out with solutions based on health content – which may or may not be the right strategy. The materials don’t land as the intended approaches and there are inconsistencies which don’t always come together. We need to collaborate with teachers. However, there are problems for teachers. There are not enough guidance materials available which are strong evidence-based, effective and impactful. There are inconsistencies across programs as to what is available. This becomes a professional vulnerability in keeping a safe space for them”.

Fostering trust, dialogue, and psychological safety

Jenkins argues that communication is the answer and an increase in healthy conversations, “open and honest discussions with curiosity to understand the context and perspectives and the various reasons as to why they make the choices they do.”

She identifies Agenda Gap, an initiative for “equipping youth to promote well-being for themselves, where youth come together with the team and adults to share their perspectives. This program creates conditions for them to be heard and valued more than ever and how simple it can be to develop relationships that are protective, promote well-being for young people […], offer opinions that matter to them.”

Instead of putting young people in a box where they are not yet adult enough to make adult decisions, she says the program reveals that it is “quite amazing the capacity they can bring to make informed decisions from reviewing studies, identifying evidence/bias, and finding themselves quite able to make informed decisions.”

Jenkins also points out that there is a continuum of substance use that ranges from the non-problematic to the potentially harmful. Parents need the confidence and supports to have non-threatening, helpful, and practical conversations and “tackle the issue accordingly. The importance of the relationships where along the spectrum protective effects of trusted adults are there to have the conversation about substance use in a thoughtful way and prevent, reduce, and provide pathways to more intensive intervention.”

She points to the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy as providing an education tool kit and resources for guiding discussions which can be helpful for parents navigating this conversation that may not always be comfortable.

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