mental health crisis new brunswick

Youth mental health deserves more than flippant responses from government

There’s an obvious disconnect happening in our society, and while there’s no single answer to solve the issues we’ve created, there are a few obvious steps we could be taking to improve the situation – and a few that fall short. I was disappointed to say the least to read New Brunswick Health Minister Ted Flemming suggest that youth simply need to “get out in your community” to curb growing rates of anxiety and other mental health challenges. Yes, they do need more community interaction, but we as adults need to facilitate that, not prescribe it and leave them to figure out how.

I read an illuminating article published in the New York Times’ sports section recently (and believe me, sports stories are not generally high on my reading list). But the headline and the content resonated on so many levels, I think it should be required reading for all politicians and policy makers. The writer, Tom Farrey, posed the question: Does Norway have the answer to excess in youth sports? I’d argue it’s not only the answer to excess in sports, but also the answer to our short-comings in other areas, such as youth mental health.

More and more young athletes appear to be focusing on chasing an elite performance in a single sport, rather than building a healthy relationship with athletics in general. This leads to a host of issues, including decreased participation as children age and increased anxiety around performance at a young age. This isn’t to say we need to be coddling children and taking away scoring, simply that we’re actually limiting many youth’s involvement in sports by demanding too much, too soon.

In his article, Farrey notes that Norway became a focus for him during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, when the country with just over 5 million residents won the most medals of any nation at any Winter Games, bringing home a total of 39 medals across 11 sports. His research points to the success stemming from the nation’s Children’s Rights in Sport document, which sets out the type of experience every child in Norway should have when it comes to athletics – one that provides “safe training environments” and “activities that facilitate friendships.”

Inge Andersen, a noted Norwegian coach and sporting official, tells Farrey that the key is focusing on the motivations of the children. “We … can’t afford to lose them [children] because sport is not fun,” he says. According to the rights document, which is supported by the county’s 54 national sport federations, there are no national championships before athletes reach age 13, no regional championships before age 11, and results of youth sports are not publicized.

It is community over competition, a motto that I think is key to so very much in our society. Norway as a whole has decided to focus on building a foundation of joy, a sense of belonging, and country of children who are encouraged to be active and take action, giving voice to their own desires when it comes to sports. This is a powerful way to build the type of resiliency that we need to combat the challenges that our children face as they age, particularly addressing the anxiety and disconnect that we’re seeing at alarming rates.

Perhaps the Health Minister might get out and help people, namely our youth in crisis, by ensuring young New Brunswickers actually have access to programs, athletic and otherwise, that cultivate a sense of belonging and an enjoyment in an activity that will set them – and therefore our province – up for success. A Children’s Rights document would be a start.

A version of this post appeared originally in the Times & Transcript in 2019. Click here for more of Jenna Morton’s column, She Said.

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