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Friday, September 17, 1999

Canada's youth mired in a 'psychosocial' rut, health ministers told
Increase in high-risk behaviour: Disturbing report highlights drug use, suicides; Rock says statistics are wake-up call
Mark Kennedy
Ottawa Citizen

CHARLOTTETOWN - Young women in Canada are increasingly engaging in high-risk behaviour, including violent crimes, says a major new report.

The report, a compilation of provincial and national statistics and surveys from the last four years, concludes that Canada's young people are mired in a "psychosocial" rut that is causing disturbingly high rates of suicide, depression, violent crime and drug abuse. In many cases, the trend is particularly pronounced among young women.

Over the past 10 years, the rate of girls charged with violent crimes has increased twice as fast as that of boys. Despite the fact that violent crime has declined among youths, it remains double the rate of a decade ago -- a total of 111,736 people aged 12 to 17 were charged with Criminal Code offences in 1997, a 7% drop from the previous year. More than half were charged with property crimes.

A 1994-95 survey of sexually active teens between the ages of 15 and 19 found some disturbing results that frighten public-health officials: 51% of the females and 29% of the males reported having had sex without a condom in the previous year. The rates were even higher for people in their early 20s.

Young women aged 15 to 19 were the most likely of any age group in Canada (including adults) to exhibit signs of depression (8%-9%). Another survey, which used special questions to gauge psychological well-being, found that teenage women have the lowest self-esteem of any age group.

And while overall smoking rates among Canadians aged 15 and over have dropped, from 47% in 1970 to 30% in 1990, smoking rates among young women remain high. A 1994-95 survey found that among youths aged 12-17, girls are more likely than boys to smoke, and among 12-14-year-olds, 10% of girls were smokers, compared to 6% of boys.

The report was prepared by a special team of officials from federal and provincial health departments, the Canadian Institute for Health Information, and academics at the University of Toronto. It was prepared for federal and provincial health ministers who released it yesterday at their annual meeting.

The report urges governments to invest more money in keeping Canadians healthy -- with particular emphasis on early childhood education, providing employment programs for youth and help for aboriginals who, as a group, suffer very poor health.

The report warns there are "distressing trends in the psychosocial well-being of Canada's youth." It urges governments to recognize the "warning signs that many of Canada's young people are greatly troubled."

For instance, the 224-page document reports many young women are smoking to manage stress, and that this will lead to an "epidemic" of lung cancer in 30 years.

There was a resurgence of drug abuse in the 1990s, the report says, and far too many young people are having unprotected sex even though they know the risks of contracting a sexually transmitted disease.

Allan Rock, Health Minister, acknowledged the report should serve as a wake-up call for governments, adding that the problems faced by today's youth will have long-term implications for the country and its health system.

He said governments must create better programs that will, for instance, stop youths from smoking and persuade them to remain in school and "take a longer view of their lives."

Among some of the report's other major findings on youth:

The national suicide rate for males aged 15 to 19 was 18.5 per 100,000 in 1996, almost twice as high as the 1970 rate. In 1996, there were 3,941 reported suicides in Canada -- almost 11 per day. Males between the ages of 20 and 24 are the most likely to kill themselves.

During the 1990s, there has been an average of almost 39 suicides per year by children ages 10 to 14 (mostly boys), up from the average of 27 per year during the 1980s.

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