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Youth feel disturbing sense of isolation

Well. That was a wild ride. I was a little surprised by the reaction to my last column musing over whether it’s time to leave Vancouver . Housing is a hot-button issue in this town, of course, and bound to spur passionate debate.

Well. That was a wild ride.

I was a little surprised by the reaction to my last column musing over whether it’s time to leave Vancouver. Housing is a hot-button issue in this town, of course, and bound to spur passionate debate. But many of the responses I received pointed to issues that run much deeper than differing opinions over which should be lowered: housing prices or expectations.

I got dozens of emails and read hundreds of comments from younger (and a few older) people who felt they have been forced out of this city, or who are right on the edge.

What surprised me was the sense of isolation among them, despite the fact that so many clearly face the same challenges.

That’s the conundrum with my generation. We are a disconnected one. Unlike boomers who — if movies, TV, and my parents’ recollection of the ’70s are anything to go by — were united in their youth against “The Man,” today’s younger folk don’t seem to share that solidarity. We may privately feel the toll of instability, housing costs being just one part of a complex puzzle of pressures, but publicly, we appear utterly apathetic.

It’s a pickle for those trying to organize us. Statistics and studies consistently show we are being squeezed from all sides, yet outwardly, we seem more interested in our devices than in urging ourselves to take action. So, the conclusion goes, we mustn’t be all that concerned about it. Ironically, new research indicates the inverse may be true.

According to Shari Laliberte, a PhD candidate in the faculty of nursing at UBC, young people in Vancouver are feeling pinched by a variety of socioeconomic factors, and what’s more, their tendency to turn inward isn’t a sign of indifference; it’s a coping strategy.

A former children’s mental health nurse, Laliberte interviewed 30 Vancouver area youth between the ages of 15 and 28 for her dissertation, focusing on the relationship between socioeconomic conditions and mental health. Though based on a small sample, the qualitative research yielded some interesting insights.

Of the 30 subjects, ranging from homeless high school kids to university educated young adults, not one reported getting their mental health needs met. All of them felt like they were in survival mode. “That for me was a big insight,” she says.

Standing in the way of mental health is the terminal instability young people here face on many fronts, financial, social and environmental. Furthermore, treading water in our profit-oriented society had left many with a heightened sense of individualism — that is, they felt alone in dealing with these pressures.

From social media to corporate advertising to the coping skills taught in mental health programs, young people are steeped in a culture that tells them that if things aren’t going their way in life, they are primarily to blame, Laliberte says. While authority figures may acknowledge some of the external factors behind this stress, young people are almost universally encouraged to deal with them on an individual basis.

“Change your thinking is a big one,” she says, explaining they’re often told to focus on the bright side, or adjust their attitudes.

When young people do speak publicly about what’s stressing them out, they are often shamed.

“The system orients you inward,” says Laliberte, noting many felt so much pressure to project an image of affluence and confidence — online and off — they felt they couldn’t speak with peers about common challenges or issues.

“We focus a lot of attention on helping young people to manage and control their emotions,” she says. “But what I’m arguing in the research is we need to listen and really attend to how their emotions are showing us how their broader environment threatens or enables their mental health needs.”

To start, we could pay attention to the deeper messages inside divisive public discourse, like the housing debate. We spend so much time batting around the question of whether young people have a right to feel stressed about housing that we ignore the more pressing fact: many of them just do.

“This is something I continue to contemplate,” she says. “What is good enough? Is it good enough for young people just to be surviving? Or do we want them to flourish?”

Laliberte thinks we should reach for the latter. I agree.

To share your story with Laliberte, visit her blog:

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