Mental health declined in N.B. students, especially those identifying as non-binary

·3 min read
A higher proportion of New Brunswick students from grades 6-12 reported feeling more anxious and depressed in a recent survey. (Shutterstock / Tero Vesalainen - image credit)
A higher proportion of New Brunswick students from grades 6-12 reported feeling more anxious and depressed in a recent survey. (Shutterstock / Tero Vesalainen - image credit)

New Brunswick students are smoking less when it comes to cigarettes and pot and they're also not drinking as much, but their overall mental health has declined.

That's according to a recent student wellness survey conducted by the New Brunswick Health Council.

Mental health concerns are especially high for those who don't identify as "boys or girls," said CEO Stéphane Robichaud.

The percentage of non-binary students who rated their mental health as very good or excellent was 7.4 per cent, compared to 40.2 per cent for others. And 86 per cent of non-binary students reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression in the 12 months prior to the survey.

Alexandre Silberman/CBC
Alexandre Silberman/CBC

Robichaud said he was struck by how much higher depression and anxiety were for students who identify as non-binary.

"I think that's a very important call for help from these students, and it speaks to the importance of being very attentive."

He's also concerned about an overall increase in mental health indicators for all students.

"It is becoming increasingly concerning to see that the number of students indicating signs of depression and anxiety is rising," said Robichaud.

More than 42,000 students in grades 6-12 completed the survey during the 2021-2022 school year — 76 per cent of all students in middle and high schools in New Brunswick.

New Brunswick Health Council
New Brunswick Health Council

The health council normally does the survey every three years, but after last year's online version, the plan is to do it every year from now on, said Robichaud.

Students answered questions about their social and emotional development, physical health, substance use and social experiences.

Full results of student responses can be found on New Brunswick Health Council's website.

In the latest survey, 47.8 per cent of students reported symptoms of anxiety. That's up from 32.6 per cent since 2015-2016. Similarly, 41.7 per cent of students reported symptoms of depression compared to 31.2 per cent in 2015-2016.

The survey also indicated that overall physical health has declined, said Robichaud.

New Brunswick Health Council
New Brunswick Health Council

Results also showed that students aren't getting enough sleep or physical activity, and they're getting far too much screen time.

In 2021-2022, 30.2 per cent of students reported getting eight hours or more of sleep each night, and 22.2 per cent said they got the recommended amount of daily moderate or vigorous physical activity.

"Sleep is still stubbornly very, very low," said Robichaud, especially for non-binary students.

"Sleep has a huge impact on your mental health. If you don't have good sleeping habits, that does tend to have a compound effect over time," he said.

Screen time was also way up for students.

Roughly 85 per cent said they exceeded the recommended limit of two hours of "leisure screen time" per day.

"These responses to this survey are telling us a very important message to all adults, you know, pertaining to our youth — that they're going through a reality that we didn't, our generation, did not face," said Robichaud.

There was some positive news about substance use in the survey. After a long period of increases, tobacco use was down for the first time.

Robichaud said tobacco use had been increasing since 2012, when the surveys were first started. The latest survey, however, shows use of tobacco, alcohol and marijuana were all down.

Robichaud said he was a bit surprised, but suspects it may be related to pandemic restrictions and an overall lessening of socialization among teenagers.

Robichaud said the data in the survey can be used by parents, school officials and even community groups to help identify problems in certain areas and address them.

Since the data are broken down into individual communities, unusual blips in the numbers can be addressed and specific populations can be targeted with appropriate resources, he said.

When poor nutrition was identified in one area of the province in a previous survey, for example, schools created salad bars for students and program where students could get involved in growing their own produce, Robichaud said.