Photo collage via the Toronto Star

Generation Distress

This generation of children and young people is making unprecedented calls for help amid rising anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and self-harm that is undermining their academics, personal relationships and careers. In growing numbers, they are taking their lives.

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Illustration by McKenna Deighton / Toronto Star

From increased academic stress to long waits for help, these graphics show how youth are struggling with mental health

The Star/Investigative Journalism Bureau filed dozens of freedom of information requests to better understand and measure mental health on the campuses of Canada’s colleges of universities. Of the more than 100 schools approached, 40 provided meaningful data. The results reveal a post-secondary system overwhelmed by unmet need.

Explore the data

Kyle Gardiner at summer camp in 2015, where he spent 52 days north of the Arctic Circle. This was his favourite photo of himself.

Kyle was a young, aspiring lawyer with loving parents, but 'inside he was crumbling.' Now his family sees the warning signs they missed

Kyle Gardiner was well educated and travelled, supported by two engaged, professional parents and dozens of friends. But his mental health descent at university was never fully comprehended by his friends and family. The boy they saw filled with promise, engaged and focused on his future, had been preparing something very different.

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Sue and Terry Gardiner, Kyle's parents. Kyle's parents both say their son never mentioned seeking counselling. They say they see now what they couldn't at the time. (Photo via Richard Lautens / Toronto Star)

Kyle Gardiner was young, ambitious, and well loved. He also struggled with mental health.

Gardiner was memorialized in an Aurora funeral home on Feb. 15 of this year by 200 friends and family who had little understanding of the seriousness of his pain. Sue and Terry Gardiner, Kyle's parents, speak about their son in this video produced by the Toronto Star.

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Photo collage via the Toronto Star

Generation Distress: Discussing the youth mental health crisis

The IJB/Star’s Generation Distress series is a multi-part look of the many issues surrounding mental health, young people and the barriers they face in getting treatment, and what solutions might be available to help fix a challenged system. To talk about this series, This Matters is joined by Robert Cribb, an investigative and foreign affairs reporter at the Toronto Star and the director of the IJB.

Listen to the podcast

Psychiatrist Juveria Zaheer, a CAMH researcher and emergency clinician, spent 18 months reading the final notes left behind by Torontonians who died by suicide. STEVE RUSSELL / TORONTO STAR

What’s fuelling the mental health crisis in young people? Here are four key stressors

Amid a generational explosion in mental health demands, a question lingers in every statistic on youth depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation: why is this happening? While today’s young people are the most willing in history to broadcast their struggles with mental health, they also face new and unique stressors: Constant self-comparison; unattainable social media lifestyles; climate and pandemic threats; and, economic shifts undermining job security and career stability for millions. Today’s young people face what a growing body of research and experts call an emerging public health crisis.

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Kay Zimmer, a recent University of Toronto graduate, has been a vocal opponent of the school’s involuntary leave policy under which officials can remove students struggling with serious psychological challenges. GIULIA FIAONI / INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM BUREAU

Universities with policies to force out students in crisis say it’s a safety measure. Students say threat of removal fills them with dread

Universities across Canada have introduced controversial involuntary leave policies that empower school officials to remove students struggling with serious psychological challenges. School administrators argue these policies are designed to encourage students who pose a risk to themselves or others to get help before safely returning to their studies.

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Some days climate change anxiety is just too much to endure for University of Guelph student MacKenzie Harris. “I dip… in and out of periods of depression, just feeling like this is huge, this is way too big.” Photo provided by MacKenzie Harris

Across North America, climate change is disrupting a generation's mental health

Climate change-induced angst among youth is helping fuel growing youth mental health instability across North America. Nearly half — 49 per cent — of the 152 post-secondary students in Canada and the U.S. interviewed for the investigation listed “existential angst” over climate change, job prospects and future economic stability as one of their mental health stressors.

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Katrina Stone at Access Open Minds in Chatham. Stone is one of thousands of young Canadians with mental health challenges treated in a hubs model, one-stop mental health centres that bring a team of mental health specialists under one roof to offer services from medication and therapy to addiction treatment, housing and career support. CHARLIE BUCKLEY / INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM BUREAU

She was suicidal, struggling with PTSD and addicted to alcohol. The help she needed was all under one roof

Thousands of young Canadians with mental health challenges are being treated in one-stop mental health centres that bring a battery of specialists under one roof to offer medication, therapy, addiction treatment, and housing and career support. It’s just one of the ways experts say Canada can combat its youth mental health crisis.

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Abivarman Arulpirarangah, a charismatic Grade 12 athlete at Castlebrooke Secondary School in Brampton, died by suicide in 2019. (Supplied photo)

Abi was outgoing and gifted. He never made it to graduation. The 17-year-old’s death — and what followed at his Brampton high school — is part of a concerning problem

Researchers, parents and educators say Canada’s model for youth mental health care is failing to diagnose and treat young people at a crucial moment in their development.

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Saul Arias died by suicide in January 2021. The 16-year old’s parents included the heartbreaking detail about their son’s death in his obituary to flag what they call systemic failures in addressing teen isolation and academic anxiety during the pandemic.

They had to write an obituary for their 16-year-old son. This is what Saul’s parents want you to know about the pandemic’s effect on youth mental health

As the second wave of the pandemic reinstituted social restrictions and shuttered schools in many places this winter, three of Ontario’s largest children’s hospitals have seen spikes in youth suicidal ideation, self-harm and suicide attempts.

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Anatomy of a campus mental health crisis

Christian Roman's case is among dozens reviewed as part of a year-long investigation into spiking youth mental health demands co-ordinated by the Investigative Journalism Bureau. They detail increasingly complex disputes between students and their post-secondary institutions over academic standards, differing expectations of mental health care on campus and legal requirements schools must meet to provide reasonable accommodations to the growing numbers of students suffering with challenges.

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High school reporters contribute to continental investigation into youth mental health crisis

North America’s youth are facing an unprecedented crisis in mental health and COVID-19 has only made it worse. Over the past year, more than two dozen young journalists, including many from the youth-run blog A Teen Perspective, conducted interviews with their peers as part of Generation Distress, an Investigative Journalism Bureau/Toronto Star investigation, to understand how a changing world has impacted their state of mind.

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Photo by Good Free Photos on Unsplash

When colleges fail at mental health

America’s teens and young adults report record levels of mental-health issues, and college counsellors are reporting ever-increasing demand for their services. The demands have only escalated with the coronavirus pandemic.

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Risperdal via Wikimedia Commons

How Off-Label Drugs Hurt Kids

Federal statistics show roughly 16 to 20 percent of youths suffer from mental illness and behavioural issues—including anxiety, depression, attention-deficit disorders and other conditions. Along with therapies like counselling, classroom aides and accommodations, many get medication. Often those prescriptions are off-label. Medical studies and lawsuits show adverse events are not unusual.

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Investigative Journalism Bureau Toronto Star NBC News Canada's National Observer

Project Credits

Investigative Journalism Bureau/University of Toronto, Dalla Lana School of Public Health Reporters/Researchers

  • Denessia Blake-Hepburn
  • Charles Buckley
  • Olivia Caruso
  • Giulia Fiaoni
  • Declan Keogh
  • Amina Mahmood
  • Liam McCoy
  • Katharine Swyers
  • Jacqueline Veras

Toronto Star Journalists/Designers

  • Andrew Bailey
  • Morgan Bocknek
  • David Bruser
  • Robert Cribb
  • McKenna Deighton
  • Lynn McAuley
  • Jesse McLean
  • Tania Pereira
  • Taras Slawnych
  • Cameron Tulk
  • Kelsey Wilson
  • Fadia Yaacoub

National Observer

  • David McKie

Carleton University

  • Faculty
  • David McKie
  • Reporters
  • Samantha Campling
  • Erika Ibrahim
  • Taylor Retter
  • Elyse Robinson
  • Victoria Senetchko

City University of New York, Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism

  • Faculty
  • Andrew Lehren
  • Reporters
  • Danielle Hyams
  • Larisa Karr
  • Charlie May
  • Harsha Nahata
  • Abigail Napp
  • Katherine Smith

Ryerson University School of Journalism

  • Faculty
  • Robert Cribb
  • Reporters
  • Subhangi Anandarajah 
  • Mahad Arale 
  • Cole Brocksom
  • Cassandra Dubiel 
  • Menna Elnaka 
  • Urbi Khan
  • Will Lofsky 
  • Gavin Mercier  
  • Abhi Raheja
  • Roxanne Stewart-Johnson   
  • Kevin Taghabon
  • Minh Truong  

Stanford University

  • Faculty
  • Cheryl Phillips
  • Reporters
  • Brian Contreras
  • Julia Ingram
  • Danielle Echeverria 
  • Esha Dhawan

Syracuse University

  • Faculty
  • Jodi Upton
  • Alex Richards
  • Reporters
  • Emily Barnes
  • Grace Charles
  • Rocio Fortuny
  • Michael Garcia
  • Matti Lee Gellman
  • Andrea Guzman
  • Alyssa Hertel
  • Jewel Jackson
  • Max Kalnitz
  • Utkarsha Laharia
  • Sabrina Lebron 
  • Zero Lin
  • Stephanie Macrinos
  • Alex Peebles
  • Kaitlyn Tambasco

Temple University

  • Faculty
  • Aron Pilhofer
  • Reporters
  • Megan Beverly
  • Lindsay Bowen
  • Kelly Brennan
  • Jennifer Costo
  • Colin Evans
  • Madison Karas
  • Carolyn Potts
  • Sean Starosta
  • Samuel Trilling
  • Brittany Valentine

University of British Columbia

  • Faculty
  • Kathryn Gretsinger
  • Reporters
  • Esther Choi
  • Hina Imam
  • Braela Kwan
  • Candice Lipski
  • Carol Eugene Park
  • Emma Renaerts

University of King’s College

  • Faculty
  • Pauline Dakin
  • Reporters
  • Amy Brierley
  • Seyitan Moritiwon
  • Ellen Riopelle

University of Missouri

  • Faculty
  • Mark Horvit
  • Reporters
  • Seth Bodine
  • Claire Colby
  • Kaleigh Feldcamp
  • Steve Garrison
  • Hannah Hoffmeister
  • Molly Jackson
  • Gaby Morera Di Nublia 
  • Eileen Wisniowicz
  • Rachel Zalucki

A Teen Perspective

  • Siobhan Kelly
  • Mia Gidge
  • Sadie Inglis
  • Tasnia Rahman
  • Liv Forster
  • Kyle Munns

High school reporters

  • Kiara Distin
  • Maeve Ellis
  • Sean Lee
  • Kiana Sharifi
  • Samia Fouché
  • Alex Goldstein
  • Shun Graves
  • Mikayla Higgins
  • Sarah Kiefer
  • Adrianna Nehme
  • Mikaela Ramirez
  • Madeline Sundheim
  • Jayla Wideman
  • Ezra Bitterman
  • Christine Fink
  • Rose Lepin
  • Zoe Beiles
  • Sara Chiarotto O’Brien
  • Ashvini Giridaran
  • Raiyana Malik
  • Vita Rao
  • Alan Nemirovski
  • Aliyaan Amlani-Kurji
  • Indigo Skinner
  • Sanaa Mahmud
  • Gul Khan
  • Nathalie Adriana Funes Serna
  • Juliette Hardy
  • Molly Fry
  • Freya Cobb
  • Jacklynn Ogden

Banner image by Aidan Lising