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Youth and mental health disorders

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Experts to the rescue: Do youths really know what mental health problems are all about?

By Julie-Katia Morin-Major

As part of the DeStress for Success© program, we believed it was important to learn what youths thought and know about mental health problems. This is why we asked 176 youths to answer a questionnaire on this subject. After going through their answers, we clearly saw that youths have some misconceptions about certain mental health problems such as depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). They are not, however, the only ones to uphold these images. In fact, we often hear that individuals who suffer from OCD are scared of everything or that tobacco addiction is not a drug addiction. Fact or fiction? To answer all these questions and to learn more about mental health problems, we interviewed six mental health experts.


Currently, depression touches about 10% to 15% of adolescents, a number that grows constantly every year. As we face this troubling trend, it is important to inform children and adolescents about this disorder and help them learn how to detect it. After analyzing the questionnaires, we can state that 88% of the youths had some idea about what depression is. Although they were good at detecting symptoms, they ignore that girls are twice as likely to experience depression.

Most surveyed youths thought depression had something to do with being sad or tired. They also thought it was accompanied by a loss of interest, the impression that everything is going wrong and even suicidal ideas. According to Dr. Stéphane Kunicki, head of the intensive care unit at Louis-H. Lafontaine Hospital, they are not wrong. Actually, depression is defined by two main criteria that include sadness and anhedonia (lack of interest). Depression is also accompanied with certain criteria such as:

  • tiredness
  • thoughts of death
  • lack of self-confidence
  • appetite changes.

Psychologist Isabelle Lajoie likes to use the following image to help people understand how depression is experienced: “Picture yourself with a friend in front of a breathtaking scenery. Unfortunately, your friend is wearing very dark glasses. Even if you describe how the colors are vivacious, he/she will not understand because they see everything in dark shades. It is the same thing for someone who suffers from depression. No matter how beautiful, fun and stimulating life really is, the person who suffers from depression cannot see it this way because he/she does not live things the same way”.

In brief, even if depression is a taboo subject these days, probably because it is not well understood and stigmatized, youths can still correctly identify many signs and symptoms of this disorder. However, other mental health problems are not as well understood by adolescents.

Anxiety disorders

Of the 176 respondents, 40% have an opinion about what anxiety disorders are, and of this group, 15% believe it has to do with stress. Is there a difference between stress and anxiety disorders or are they the same phenomenon? In order to shed light on this question, we asked Dr. Sonia Lupien, director and founder of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress and scientific director of the Fernand-Seguin Research Centre of the Louis-H. Lafontaine Hospital, as well as Dr. André Marchand, researcher at the Fernand-Seguin Research Centre of the Louis-H. Lafontaine Hospital.

First and foremost, anxiety is the fear of fear. It can be caused by either a personality trait or as a passing state. In effect, certain individuals have anxious personalities and so have a tendency to be anxious no matter what situations they find themselves in. Their anxiety persists and is not specific to any particular event. However, others will experience transient anxiety because of a specific event. For example, before a medical admissions exam, certain individuals will be nervous, but their anxiety will disappear once the exam is finished.

On the other hand, stress is not a personality trait, but rather an organism’s response to situations that are incontrollable, unpredictable, novel and/or that threaten their ego. However, there is a link between stress and anxiety. Effectively, people who have anxious personalities will generally have stress responses that are more elevated.

It is important to understand that like stress, anxiety is a normal reaction for organisms since without it, we would not be able to function. In fact, we would not even be capable of detecting potential dangers. For example, we would not bother looking both ways when crossing the street. However, when anxiety becomes overwhelming, we are talking about anxiety disorders. There are different types of anxiety disorders (panic disorder, social anxiety, generalized anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, separation anxiety, specific phobias) that are characterized by a loss of control, fear or an anxiety-provoking event. The different types of anxiety disorders vary in terms of duration and intensity.

Remember that like stress, anxiety touches individuals of every age. In brief, the young and not so young are not protected from anxiety disorders.

Substance abuse

Even though substance abuse starts during adolescents or early adulthood, only 45% of youths have heard of this disorder. Many of them think that substance abuse is when an individual consumes drugs, cigarette or alcohol to a point where he/she intoxicates themselves. Dr. Stéphane Potvin, researcher at Fernand-Seguin Research Center, explains that substance abuse consists of abuses and dependences on certain substances. These can be depressants (e.g., alcohol), stimulants (e.g., cocaine, amphetamine) or hallucinogens (e.g., cannabis, PCP, magic mushrooms). Are youths right to think that tobacco is included as part of these substances? “Yes, in the same ways as cocaine and cannabis”, says Dr. Potvin. Some experts are starting to think that eating fast food in an abusive and incontrollable way would be a considered substance abuse as well.

But what leads to substance abuse? Many youths mentioned that it is caused by peer pressure. Dr. Potvin agrees that peer pressure is a very important factor, but we cannot ignore other factors such as socioeconomic status, culture and genetic predispositions. To avoid these pressures, Dr. Potvin thinks that it is important to know that there are many things in life that are cool to do that do not bring about all the disadvantages of drugs.

Dr. Potvin brings up a few important facts about substance abuse and youths. In fact, many of you may be surprised to hear that boys are two times more at risk than girls to become substance abuser. Also, it is important to know that you can eventually become a substance abuser after only one consumption, depending on one’s predispositions.

To sum up, just about half of adolescents have a good idea of what substance abuse is all about. It is important to remember that the consumption of certain substances (ex: tobacco, alcohol, cannabis) is sometimes wrongly trivialized. This is why it is important to continue promoting awareness and minimize the potential repercussions of the first consumption.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is not well known by youths. Actually, only 16% of them had their own opinion of this disorder. Most of the kids answered that people who suffered from OCD were scared of everything. We asked Audrey Bertrand, doctoral student under the supervision of Dr. Kieron O’Connor at the Fernand-Seguin Research Center to enlighten us on this disorder unknown by adolescents.

First of all, it is false to believe that people who suffer from OCD are afraid of everything. These individuals have specific debilitating obsessions and compulsions that are not generalized. Obsessions are recurrent thoughts or images that are uncontrollable. For example, it can be obsessions of contamination, symmetry or death. These are often paired with compulsions, which are actions or behaviors to counter the obsessions. The compulsions appear to be washing of hands very often, organizing objects in a symmetrical manner or constantly repeating a sentence related to the obsession.

It is interesting to note that the age of onset for the first symptoms is between 6 and 15 for boys and 20 to 29 for women. Furthermore, OCD affects about 2% of youths, and so, is less frequent than depression and substance abuse. This may explain why children know less about this disorder.

To conclude, many mental health disorders start during adolescence or at the beginning of adulthood. This is why it is important for kids and their relatives to know and understand the different mental health disorders. After analyzing all the answers of the adolescents, we observed, at least in part, that some aspects of disorders remain unknown. In order to quickly detect the emergence of the first symptoms and to be able to receive the appropriate medical or psychological treatment, it is important to demystify and destigmatize mental health disorders. Above all, do not forget that you are not alone; mental health disorders touch 20% of the population. Do not hesitate to talk about it.