On Wednesday, Feb. 17, Her Royal Highness, the Duchess of Cambridge, is guest editor for The Huffington Post, with a focus on children’s mental health. As a Canadian with two kids, I’d like to think our country ranks pretty high when it comes to the happiness of our youngest citizens. But a UNICEF study proves otherwise — and reveals some concerning statistics.
In a 2014 report on child well-being across the world’s richest countries, Canada came out firmly — in the middle. Out of 29 countries, we’re number 17, ranking just below the United Kingdom (the U.S. was near the bottom, in the 26th position).
Who is getting it right when it comes to kids? The Netherlands, Norway and Iceland held the top three positions, respectively.
Read on to see why Canadian kids aren’t as happy as they could be — and where we could do better.
1. Immunization rates
Health is one of the foremost factors in determining overall happiness and well-being. Shockingly, Canada scored among the bottom three countries in the category of health and safety according to the UNICEF study.
Our low score is based in part on our immunization rates. While Canada’s health care is heralded around the world as an example of what we’re doing right, our vaccination program has faced a lot of propaganda surrounding the now disproved research linking the MMR vaccine to autism.
To provide adequate protection from the spread of deadly diseases, a 95 per cent immunization rate is required. This “herd immunity” is especially important for those who cannot be immunized for medical reasons. Our vaccination rate is delinquent by 11 per cent, leaving our kids at risk.
According to the UNICEF study: “three of the richest countries in the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] — Austria, Canada and Denmark — are the only countries in which the immunization rate falls
below 90 per cent.”
2. Mental health issues
Canadian kids are also dealing with mental health issues, the instance of which are projected to increase by as much as 50 per cent by 2020.
Sadly, only one in five Canadian children who need mental health services receive them, which could be part of the reason Canada’s youth suicide rate is among the highest of developed countries and has remained unchanged for the past 10 years.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, “Canada’s youth suicide rate is the third highest in the industrialized world.” In fact, suicide is the cause of 24 per cent of all deaths among Canadians aged 15 to 24 years old.
By comparison, other countries, such as Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States, have been able to successfully address the issue by implementing prevention strategies.
“For too long, the mental health of young people has not been a priority across Canada,” reads a 2010 study by Evergreen and the Mental Health Commission of Canada. “For too long, child and youth mental health has been orphaned within a mental health system that is itself orphaned within Canadian health care. The time to act, to create positive change is now.”
Regular exercise is directly linked to mental health. While the UNICEF survey places Canadian kids near the top of the pack in terms of physical activity (getting at least one hour of physical activity per day), only about 22 per cent of kids report that much exercise. This means the vast majority of Canadian kids get less than an hour of physical activity per day.
Our kids also have one of the highest obesity rates of all countries studied — over 20 per cent.
Canadian youth have the highest rate of cannabis use in the developed world. Twenty-eight per cent of 11, 13 and 15 year olds reported using the drug within the previous year.
What’s disconcerting is that young people are more vulnerable to the negative side effects of the drug because their brains are still developing, putting them at a greater risk of cognitive and behavioural impairment, and mental health concerns.
However, we should note that cannabis use among Canadian youth has come down from 40 per cent in 2001.
In the UNICEF study, Canadian kids reported some of the lowest scores across the board when asked to address the quality of three relationships — with their peers, their mom and their dad.
The study asked kids if they found their peers helpful and if they found it easy to talk to their mom or dad. About 66 per cent of Canadian kids agreed with those statements.
By contrast, the Netherlands took top billing with nearly 85 per cent of kids reporting the closest relationships in all three categories. So what is the Netherlands doing to foster family closeness that Canada isn’t?
Dutch parents tend to spend more time with their kids owing to a viable part-time workforce that enjoys the same employee benefits that are available to full-time employees.
And it’s not just moms who are getting in on quality time with the kiddos. Dads often also either work part-time or condense their work week into four days, leaving one day a week for Daddy Day (yes, it’s a real thing!).
6. Further education
In ranking “educational well-being,” UNICEF looked at further education, which is the rate of kids aged 15 to 19 who are in school. This is another area Canada didn’t perform very well compared to the other countries.
Our further education rate is above 80 per cent, but it’s still the sixth lowest ranking. And we’re not alone: “Seven of the wealthiest OECD countries fall into the bottom third of the further education league table — Austria, Canada, Italy, Luxembourg, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.”
So what does all this mean for our kids?
Before deciding to pack up and relocate to one of the countries with the happiest children, keep in mind that in most categories in the UNICEF study only a few points separate those countries at the top of the chart from those at the bottom.
For example, the percentage of youth participating in higher education only varies by about 15 per cent from the top country to the bottom. And while the top countries have a 99 per cent immunization rate — 84 per cent of Canadian babies are still immunized.
This study does show that we could do better, especially when it comes to our kids’ physical and mental health.
“I was lucky. My parents and teachers provided me with a wonderful and secure childhood where I always knew I was loved, valued and listened to,” the Duchess of Cambridge said in a public speech last November. “But of course, many children are not so lucky. Since beginning my work in areas like addiction, for example, I have seen time and time again that the roots of poor mental health in adulthood are almost always present in unresolved childhood challenges.”
Young Minds Matter is a new series designed to lead the conversation with children about mental and emotional health, so youngsters feel loved, valued and understood. Launched with Her Royal Highness, the Duchess of Cambridge, as guest editor, we will discuss problems, causes and most importantly solutions to the stigma surrounding the mental health crisis among children.