Family stress, lack of attachments: Boom-and-bust economies affect youth mental health, research shows
Growing up in an oil town, Chaise Combs saw the effects of the industry's ups and downs firsthand.
Almost every member of his immediate family, except for his grandmother, worked in the oil and gas sector in Drayton Valley, Alta., — a town approximately 150 kilometres southwest of Edmonton.
Combs, now 28, said his family never went without when times were tough, but when times were good, he was often left to fend for himself.
"With my dad, I never got to see him. He was away working a lot. But he did like to buy me things with the money he made working on the rigs so that was good, I guess," he said.
Combs's experience is reflected in recent research that examined the impacts boom-and-bust economies, such as Drayton Valley's, can have on youth mental health.
Led by Michael Ungar, a Canada Research Chair in child, family and community resilience at Dalhousie University in Halifax, researchers interviewed more than 600 people for a study called Resilient Youth in Stressed Environments (RYSE).
The oil industry touches every part of Drayton Valley. The town has a population of less than 7,000 and exists, predominantly, because oil was discovered there in 1953.
The resource is so pervasive that an oil derrick attraction welcomes people when they pull off the highway into the community.
But the reliance of a town built on oil means that residents — including young people — are often left to the whims of the peaks and valleys of the energy sector.
"Living in an oil gas town did shape my life quite a bit in ways I probably wasn't aware of at the time." - Chaise Combs
"Living in an oil and gas town did shape my life quite a bit in ways I probably wasn't aware of at the time," Combs said.
With his father always working, he recalls not feeling supported by his guidance counsellor or his grandparents, who he said didn't know how to give him advice about school.
"I felt often alone and without a support network," Combs said.
Combs said he started doing marijuana when he was 14, started drinking when he was in high school and moved onto hard drugs, such as cocaine, crack and meth. While he acknowledges the choices that he made were his alone, he said transient workers coming in and out of the town may have played a role. He has been clean for more than five years now.
Combs, a research participant in Ungar's study, is giving back to his community by working to set up a youth advisory committee for Drayton Valley's town council.
Ungar found booms and busts can have profound impacts on family dynamics, such as whether parents are at home, whether they can afford to enrol their children in extracurricular activities and what futures young people choose to pursue.
"You see stress on families and you see stress on kids," he said.
"You see stress on families and you see stress on kids." - Michael Ungar
"When things are booming in Drayton Valley, we heard that young people still reported mental health challenges because, of course, it stressed their families. Their parents are working super long hours. All of that has an effect on kids' sense of attachments and who's— looking after them. Whether it's boom or bust, what you see is kind of a flow through of that, an effect on kids themselves."
When there were lulls in the sector, Ungar said that young people chose to explore other opportunities.
"As the economics of the oil and gas industry changed, you saw young people opting and saying that they were going to go look for service industry jobs or they were going to go and look for government jobs or move into other kinds of educational pathways that didn't necessarily track into the oil and gas industry."
The research further revealed the importance of family routine and strong community ties for young people.
"What we found was that for young people who showed a sense of connections to their peer group or indeed a sense of a collective identity — 'I am part of this community' — they tended to be able to weather some of the stressors on their families much better," Ungar said, adding they were less likely to use alcohol or drugs and more likely to commit to education.
The research could be more relevant now — the energy sector has rebounded in recent months and the price of oil has been hovering around $100 a barrel.
Research in South Africa
The research was not limited to Canada. Ungar and his team also examined what impacts a coal liquefaction plant in Secunda, South Africa, had on young people.
Linda Theron, co-principal investigator of RYSE, said the community attracts a migrant population because of job opportunities.
"So there is perhaps not as much community cohesiveness as one would hope to see. We know that community cohesiveness really matters for young people's mental health," she said.
But Theron said that researchers heard that youth were faring well because they had supportive families, caregivers, extended families and other forms of support.
While there are vast differences between the histories and cultures of Drayton Valley and Secunda, South Africa, Theron said one similarity was glaringly clear.
"Caring family matters. Enabling peers matter. Opportunities to access safe recreational spaces that are affordable matter."
Ripple effects of 2014
When the price of oil crashed in 2014, Drayton Valley felt the impacts.
Mayor Nancy Dodds said business shuttered and residents lost their homes, and she noticed the repercussions that had on young people in the town.
"They see that there's times that their parents have made good, easy money and these times have been great. But then with that comes the times of that underlying uncertainty. So I see that when the youth are seeing that and they're hearing their parents talk about it…. I think that it really puts worry and doubt in their minds."
The town has been evolving the last few years. Businesses have moved away from oil and gas and are dabbling more in other sectors, such as hemp and marijuana. The town is also offering a free tuition program to encourage young people to pursue post-secondary education.
Dodds is buoyed by Ungar's research, saying it will show the town ways that it can support young people and their wellbeing.
Ungar said he is proud their data has been used by organizations in Drayton Valley to think about how they can create spaces where young people can come together and feel like they belong.