Growing up in an oil town, Chaise Combs witnessed the ups and downs of the industry.
Almost all of his immediate family members, with the exception of his grandmother, worked in the oil and gas industry in Drayton Valley, Alberta, a town about 150 kilometers southwest of Edmonton.
Combs, now 28, said his family never got along when times were tough, but when times were good he was often left to his own devices.
“With my dad, I never saw him. He worked a lot. But he liked to buy me things with the money he made working on the rigs, so that was good, I guess” , did he declare.
Combs’ experience is reflected in recent research that has examined the impacts boom and bust economies, like Drayton Valley’s, can have on the mental health of young people.
Led by Michael Ungar, Canada Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience at Dalhousie University in Halifax, researchers interviewed more than 600 people in a study titled Resilient Youth in Stressed Environments (RYSE).
The oil industry touches every part of Drayton Valley. The city has less than 7,000 inhabitants and exists mainly because oil was discovered there in 1953.
The resource is so ubiquitous that a derrick attraction greets people as they leave the highway to enter the community.
But a city-built’s reliance on oil means residents – including young people – are often left to the whims of the ups and downs of the energy sector.
Living in an oil town has shaped my life in ways I probably weren’t aware of at the time.– Meridian combs
“Living in an oil and gas town has shaped my life in ways I probably weren’t aware of at the time,” Combs said.
His father still working, he recalls not feeling supported by his guidance counselor or his grandparents, who he said did not know how to give him advice about school.
“I often felt alone and without a support network,” Combs said.
Combs said he started using marijuana when he was 14, started drinking when he was in high school, and moved on to hard drugs, such as cocaine, crack and methamphetamine. While he acknowledges the choices he made were his own, he said transient workers going in and out of town may have played a role. He has been sober for over five years now.
Combs, a participant in Ungar’s study, gives back to his community by working to establish a youth advisory committee for Drayton Valley Town Council.
Ungar found that booms and busts can have profound effects on family dynamics, such as whether parents are home, whether they can afford to enroll their children in extracurricular activities, and what future young people choose. continue.
“You see the stress of families and you see the stress of children,” he said.
You see the stress on the families and you see the stress on the children.-Michael Ungar
“When things are booming in Drayton Valley, we’ve heard that young people are still reporting mental health issues because of course it’s stressing out their families. Their parents work very long hours. All of this has an effect on children’s sense of attachment and who takes care of them. Whether it’s a boom or a bust, what you see is kind of a flow through it, an effect on the kids themselves.
When there are lulls in the industry, Ungar said young people choose to explore other opportunities.
“As the economics of the oil and gas industry have changed, you’ve seen young people choosing and saying they’re going to get service sector jobs or they’re going to get government jobs or follow d ‘other types of educational paths that didn’t necessarily follow the oil and gas industry.’
Research has further revealed the importance of family routine and strong community ties for young people.
“What we found was that for young people who showed a sense of connection to their peer group or even a sense of collective identity – ‘I’m part of this community’ – they tended to be able to overcome some of the stressors on their families much better,” Ungar said, adding that they were less likely to use alcohol or drugs and more likely to engage in education.
The research might be more relevant now – the energy sector has rebounded in recent months and the price of oil hovers around 100 dollars per barrel.
Research in South Africa
The research was not limited to Canada. Ungar and his team also looked at the impacts of a coal liquefaction plant in Secunda, South Africa, on young people.
Linda Theron, co-principal investigator of RYSE, said the community attracts a migrant population because of employment opportunities.
“So maybe there’s not as much community cohesion as one would hope. We know that community cohesion is really important for young people’s mental health,” she said.
But Theron said researchers have heard that young people are doing well because they have families, caregivers, extended families and other forms of support.
Although there are big differences between the histories and cultures of Drayton Valley and Secunda, South Africa, Theron said there was a clear similarity.
“Caring family is important. Peer empowerment is important. Opportunities to access safe and affordable recreational spaces are important.”
Ripple Effects of 2014
When the price of oil crashed in 2014, Drayton Valley felt the effects.
Mayor Nancy Dodds said businesses closed and residents lost their homes, and she noticed the impact this was having on the city’s young people.
“They see that there were times when their parents made easy money and those times were great. But with that comes the time of that underlying uncertainty. So I see that when young people see that and hearing their parents talk about it… I think it really puts concern and doubt in their minds.”
The city has evolved in recent years. Companies have moved away from oil and gas and are moving more into other sectors, such as hemp and marijuana. The city also offers a free tuition program to encourage young people to pursue post-secondary studies.
Dodds is backed by Ungar’s research, saying it will show the city ways to support young people and their well-being.
Ungar said he is proud that their data has been used by organizations in Drayton Valley to think about how they can create spaces where young people can come together and feel at home.