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Waterloo Region survey shows youth feeling 'compromised' well-being

Figures across nine key 'dimensions' of well-being remained steady or declined over 2020 results - including self-reported decline in mental health, physical health and civic engagement
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Surveying the experience of children and youth struggling through the pandemic locally in 2021, a collaborative community initiative has highlighted some troubling trends in the self-reported mental well-being of those aged nine to 18 here in Waterloo Region. 

Following up on a smaller pilot project launched in 2020, the 2021 Youth Impact Survey is said to be a "first of its kind tool in Canada", launched by the Children and Youth Planning Table of Waterloo Region in partnership with UNICEF Canada and the Canadian Index of Well-being. Of those children and youth that chose to participate in providing their perspective, over 30 per cent self-reported feeling isolated from others in their community, over one third reported feeling lonely, and respondents were generally split on whether their own mental health was in a positive or negative space. 

Alison Pearson is the manager of community engagement and planning at the Children and Youth Planning Table of Waterloo Region. Breaking down the findings of the survey and the methodology of gathering the data, Pearson said the community collaborative leans on roughly 60 organizations in the community serving children, families and youth throughout the three cities and four townships. Pearson said those organizations, alongside a host of young "connectors" on the staff team pushed the tool out to their networks. 

"It looks at nine different dimensions of well-being: things like learning, health, safety, belonging - and young people get a chance to tell us first-hand how they feel across these different dimensions," said Pearson. "... the dimensions and questions were selected by young people across Canada - and in some cases, young people in our community."

With regards to the 1,074 young people surveyed across the region, almost half were said to be in the 13 to 15 age group - while 31.6% were between the ages of 16 to 18 with the remaining 22.7% being those aged nine to 12. While over 64 per cent of all respondents indicated a strong or somewhat strong sense of belonging, those in the 16 to 18 age group showed the lowest levels of self-perceived belonging at 50.3 per cent. That same age group generally showed the greatest feelings of isolation (43.5%), feelings of loneliness (50.5%) and lowest levels of positive mental health (40.2%). 

Arguing the value of the data collected by the Youth Impact Survey, Pearson said that the tool presented an opportunity to hear firsthand from young people - as most often when talking about their well-being, it's through the perspective of adults like parents or teachers. In aiming to hear that firsthand experience, Pearson said the questions and the tool were set up in a way to assure participating youth that their information wouldn't be shared, no identifying qualities or names were asked, and the participants were fully aware that the aggregated data would be shared to help leaders and the community in general garner a better understanding of the well-being of local youth. 

After running the smaller pilot project in the community during the first year of the pandemic, Pearson said she and her colleagues were eager to run the survey in 2021 to see what might have been holding steady, improving or in decline - and the results were not ideal. 

"Sadly, the reality of what the data tells us on the whole is that the well-being of young people continues to suffer in many regards." said Pearson.

"We saw basically a pattern of holding steady from the 2021 results, or ... in five of the domains we saw notable declines. Areas such as (...) self reported mental health particularly declining. Self-reported physical health declining. Civic engagement declining. Connections with friends, family and teachers holding steady, but also starting into the direction of declining." relayed Pearson. "I think what it helps us see as a community is the pandemic in 2021 has definitely had our young people feeling like their well-being has been compromised."

Running in conjunction with the Youth Impact Survey was a feedback assessment to allow youth to help improve the tool. Similar to 2020, Pearson said the advice received by participating youth was "overwhelming", with many simply offering their thanks for being given the opportunity to be heard. 

"Young people were saying 'it's amazing to feel like people are listening to me. It's amazing to think that adults want to know how well I'm doing.' And so, I think a big learning for the members of the Children and Youth Planning Table was how important it is to talk with young people." said Pearson. "Young people want to share about their well-being, and it's important for us to be engaging in opening space for young people to share in whatever way feels right to them to share (...) without judgment, without assumption..." 

With that data now collected and summarized, Pearson said the Planning Table will be releasing a "disaggregated snapshot" of the data every month of 2022, offering a snapshot into particular subgroups of respondents. At the same time, Pearson said the group has been holding "sensemaking sessions" with young people: virtual spaces that those between the ages of nine to 18 can come together, talk about the results of the survey and suggest action. 

"That will be a big focus for the rest of our year; bringing adults and young people together to talk about the actions to start with, given that these are the realities for how young people are dealing with right now."

"The aggregated data doesn't give us the answers, but it does give us a helpful starting point," said Pearson. "It's a starting point as we wrap our heads around what young people are telling us of where we need to dig further, where we need to hear more and what more young people can tell us so we can all move forward with actions that we're excited to have happen ..." 

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