Youth in Agassiz are facing major challenges with drugs, bullying and mental health — and the community can do more to help them.
That’s what a new report commissioned by Agassiz-Harrison Community Services is saying about the needs of youth in Agassiz and Harrison.
The Needs Assessment report was developed by Clint Hames, of Hames and Associates Consulting Ltd., between March and October of 2020. Looking at the needs of youth, seniors, families and the general community, it provided recommendations to Community Services about what it can do to improve resources in the area.
“The report is looking at how it was, how it is current, and how we can move forward,” executive director Grace Admiraal said. “It is a foundation to start.”
Significantly, the report found that young people in Agassiz have few supports for dealing with things like mental health issues and bullying, and often the support they do have is not always useful to them.
According to external stakeholders, the report says, “Agassiz Elementary Secondary School is a challenging environment for many students,” adding that challenges with bullying and drugs are prevalent at the school.
It also said stakeholders have shared that “there are a number of families that have chosen to move from the community rather than have their children attend the school.” The report notes that “while this information may be hyperbolic, it came from a very professional source.”
This same feeling was shared in a youth focus group, whose thoughts were included as an addendum to the report.
“The participants expressed a strong and emotional response to the issue of cyber bullying,” the report reads. “Sadly, from their comments, I would describe it as endemic in the school.”
Cyber bullying was seen by the students as “a big issue in their school,” the report says, particularly through social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok.
The focus group included nine girls and one boy in grades 10 through 12 at AESS, including two students from racial minorities. Every student in that group said they knew someone who was struggling with mental health.
For youth with mental health issues, “the biggest barrier in seeking help was ensuring they could trust the person providing the support,” the report reads, “and that trust could likely only be achieved through an existing relationship.”
There was also a fear that getting help would result in that teen being “outed,” either to their parents, who would get upset, or to their peers, who would stigmatize them.
Agassiz-Harrison Community Services does have a youth counselling services available, but reported noted there has been a large amount of turnover in that position, and the quality of the counselling services may have been impacted.
“Addictions and suicide counselling for youth are, perhaps, the most important and challenging services provided by the AHCSS,” the report reads. Improving staff retention rates would help youth feel more connected to the people providing the services, making it easier for teens to ask for help.
Admiraal said that the turnover was largely a result of young professionals coming into the youth counselling position, and that the movement of staff included “natural transitions” like going on maternity leave, leaving for further training or moving to new communities.
Admiraal noted that AHCS often acts as a training organization for younger professionals, and that more experienced staff members share their knowledge with new employees in the position.
The report noted that wages for the youth counsellor position could also be a challenge for recruitment. Youth counselling at AHCS is funded by the Ministry of Family and Child Development.
Every student in the focus group said they knew someone who used drugs regularly. More than half the group said they worried about someone because of their drug use. However, the group said that most of the people they worried about didn’t feel their drug use was a problem.
Here, the teens recommended that drug resistance programs should be put in place, with student input, as they felt those would be “especially effective if young people themselves had a role in designing and implementing the program.”
Although students did remember D.A.R.E.-style programs from elementary school, which sees police come to schools to teach students about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, the group found them to be largely ineffective.
The report recommended that Agassiz-Harrison Community Services explore a partnership with SD78 to develop some sort of drug resistance program. The report also brought up the possibility of developing a new youth commission, which could also participate in the creation of the drug program.
Members of the youth focus group felt that things were better in the good ol’ days, at least when it came to activities for teens.
According to the report, the teens felt that there was not enough for kids to do, and their conversation highlighted a “lack of real ‘school spirit’ and a general negativity about the community.” Other stakeholders agreed, saying that having more opportunities in Agassiz and Harrison could stop people from leaving the community right after school.
The youth group said they would like to see year-round swimming, bowling, organized sports like baseball and hockey, as well as passive activities such as drive-in movies. Although there is organized sport and swimming in the Agassiz area, these are typically not year-round.
Agassiz-Harrison Community Services operates the Valley Youth Centre, which provides some drop-in recreation services, as well as advocacy and support services.
Although the teens were aware of the centre, they said it was “only for those who needed some kind of help” and there was a stigma attached to the people who used it. They liked the idea of an activity centre for youth, but felt that the Valley Youth Centre was a “program” and that attending it would be like saying they needed help of some kind.
The report noted that the centre is providing a valuable service to some youth in the community, and should continue. However, “it would not be advisable to try to expand the centre’s mandate at this time as it is likely to be stigmatized in the mind of most youth.”
Based on the findings from early research and the youth focus group, the report provided a number of recommendations to Agassiz-Harrison Community Services. These included internal changes, particularly in regards to counselling services, and also possible external partnerships, especially with SD78 and youth.
One significant recommendation, which the report said was among the most complex and challenging for the organization, was to develop a “middle years agenda” to help local students transition more easily from elementary school to high school.
The agenda, which the report recommended be in partnership with the Ministry of Family and Child Development, could start with the expansion of resources for youth workers.
Importantly, the youth focus group noted a need “to have dialogue with ‘decision makers’ to ensure the voices of young people were included in the discussion on building a better community,” the report said. It recommended the creation of a youth commission to allow youth a chance to participate and be a voice for their community.
Which of these recommendations Agassiz Harrison Community Services will be undertaking in the near future is still up in the air.
The organization’s board will be meeting in the next few months to determine priorities based on all the recommendations included in the report for youth, seniors, families and others.
The full report is available online, or as a paper copy through Agassiz Harrison Community Services.