ARCHIVED: Forward: Young people in Canada: their health and well-being

 

The status of the health and well-being of Canada's young people has serious implications for the future of the country. In recent years, research and studies increasingly and consistently tell us that experiences early on in life, particularly at key developmental stages such as, for example, during the first year of life, and adolescence, influence our health and well-being in later years. We are also coming to understand the broad range of factors that come into play to affect the health and lifestyle-related attitudes and behaviours of young people. The costs to individuals, and more broadly to society as a whole, can be substantial when young people fail to achieve their optimal development, and as a result, fail to reach adulthood as healthy, resilient, socially responsible and engaged citizens.

Interest in the health and well-being of children and youth continues to be high and many sectors have a stake in, and a responsibility to address, the needs of children. The National Children's Agenda (1997) and the Early Childhood Development Agreement (2000) demonstrate a shared commitment between federal and provincial/territorial governments to invest in children in their early years, and to build on this investment as they face the important transition into the adolescent years. More recently, interest is growing in tracking student health and monitoring the extent to which school health policies and programs are in place across the country. Furthermore, federal, provincial, and territorial Ministers of Health have endorsed the Integrated Pan-Canadian Healthy Living Strategy Framework and a set of broad actions, which is laying the foundation for promoting positive choices about personal health practices such as healthy eating, not smoking, building a circle of social contacts and staying physically active.

The Strategy will address children and youth by working on the overall conditions that create health, in part through our work with the education sector and the school setting.

The Health Behaviours in School-Aged Children (HBSC) study is a useful tool for monitoring young people's health and related behaviours and trends in the health of youth over time. While this report focuses primarily on how Canadian youth are faring, the study is based on cross-national research conducted by an international network of research teams in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Europe. As a result, it allows us to compare issues across the 35 countries currently involved and promote cross-disciplinary research into young people's health and lifestyles. Researchers from England, Finland and Norway started the HBSC study in 1982. Since then, a growing number of countries and regions have joined the study network. In 1983-84, the (WHO) carried out the first Cross-National Survey of Health Behaviours in School-Aged Children and five more have been carried out since then.

Canada participated, for the first time, in the 1989-90 HBSC Study cycle, as an associate member, along with 11 other European countries and produced the report The Health of Canada's Youth (1992). Canada was subsequently accepted as a full member of the HBSC study team and has participated in three further HBSC surveys in 1993-94, 1997-98 and 2001-02. The last report on Canadian findings, Trends in the Health of Canadian Youth, summarized Canadian data across three survey cycles (1989-90, 1993-94, and 1997-98), and on selected topics, compared Canadian findings with those of nine European countries and the United States of America. This report examines the determinants of the health of Canadian youth in 2002 and the trends in their health over time.

By using the population health approach as a framework, the study considers young people's health in the broadest sense by looking at how socioeconomic status, the family, peers and school shape the health and well-being of adolescents in three age groups (11, 13 and 15 year olds). The data brings forward many telling results such as the importance of being well-integrated socially for life satisfaction and risk-taking behaviours. It also reveals to us the strong impact certain determinants, such as gender and socio-economic status, can have on adolescent lives, and the importance of positive school experiences for securing and maintaining health and well-being. While I am pleased to report that there has been some progress in the health behaviours and attitudes of youth since the last study, such as decreased levels of smoking in certain groups of young adults and improved levels of physical activity, some results are concerning, including high rates of marijuana use, obesity and sedentary behaviour and dissatisfaction with schools, particularly among some vulnerable groups. These results indicate there is still much work to be done in the area of youth health promotion, and actions are already underway to address them.

Sharing information on youth health-related behaviours, individual capacities and coping skills, and the social and economic determinants of those behaviours in the settings where they live, learn and play, can provide useful information to support our efforts to reduce health-risk behaviour, both nationally and internationally. Research into these areas will continue to benefit many sectors, including health educators, health policy and program developers, and youth health researchers. It will enable us to compare Canadian youth to those in similar settings, such as the United States of America and Europe, and benefit from collaboration with colleagues in other countries in research and policy-making endeavours. More importantly, studies such as this one help us learn whether we are succeeding in our own health policy and programming initiatives and achieving positive results for the health and well-being young Canadians.

Health promotion will remain a priority for international and national policies. As we strive to better understand the interactions among the social and economic determinants of health for Canadian young people and improve the health behaviour and attitudes of youth over time, we must work in cooperation with a variety of stakeholders. The knowledge of both the health and education sectors, as well as the research and studies undertaken to build our evidence base, will be valuable as we move forward. Efforts must also be made to continue to engage youth in the process, both in monitoring behavioural trends and in the policy process, as we continue to develop plans for improving their health outcomes.

Ian Green
Deputy Minister
Health Canada

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