Ottawa Citizen

Investing in youth mental health now for a better today and tomorrow

Key priority of commission is to empower youth


Change is happening in Kainai Nation. Located in southwest Alberta, it’s a place haunted by high levels of mental health problems, substance misuse, and suicide. It was the site of a residentia­l school open until the late 1970s.

Today, a group of students is tapping into the existing strengths and resiliency of their community.

After attending the inaugural Indigenous HEADSTRONG youth anti-stigma summit in Calgary in 2016, Karsen Black Water and her peers were motivated to break the cycle of trauma and become mental health champions in their school.

Black Water and her fellow students enlisted the help of their guidance counsellor and local elders to build a Wellness Teepee on school grounds. It’s a safe place for them to smudge or pray or simply talk to someone.

Recently, a troubled young student went missing. With the spectre of suicide ever-present, staff were deeply concerned. After a frantic search, he was found sitting in the Wellness Teepee — a place he knew was safe, where he could find help.

Stories like this show precisely what HEADSTRONG is designed to do: bring young people together and encourage them to be brave, reach out, and speak up about mental health. This work is especially critical among Indigenous youth, the fastest growing demographi­c in Canada, and a group with suicide rates five to seven times the national average.

HEADSTRONG summits are proven to dramatical­ly increase help-seeking behaviour and combat the stigma that so often keeps people stoic and silent. To date, more than 9,000 youth have attended and heard inspiring stories from their peers living in recovery from mental illness.

Working to empower youth is among the key priorities of the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC). More than 70 percent of adults living with mental health problems report that symptoms began in childhood or young adulthood. The developmen­tal life stage from late adolescenc­e to early adulthood, between ages 16 and 25, is a critical period when early symptoms often appear.

It’s also a time when young people are expected to transition from child and youth mental health services to those for adults. Too often, navigating this fraught path results in young people drifting away from services and supports when they need them most.

The MHCC has focused on developing programs to smooth this transition. To date, 83,000 Canadian adults who interact with youth have been trained in Mental Health First Aid for youth. This course gives participan­ts the confidence to intervene if they feel a young person is experienci­ng a mental health crisis. The MHCC also expects to launch an adaptation of Mental Health First Aid Teen in high schools across Canada beginning in 2020.

Providing vitally important training, such as in boosting resiliency or articulati­ng mental health concerns in a safe and non-stigmatizi­ng manner, is at the heart of efforts such as The Inquiring Mind (TIM), a program for university and college students.

“We talk about stigma and the barriers it creates on campuses. Students who take the program have an opportunit­y to share their personal experience­s and hear from peers living in recovery,” said Dr. Andrew Szeto, director of mental health strategy and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Calgary, who led adapting the training from existing evidence-based programs.

University of Calgary provost and vice-president (academic) Dru Marshall said the program is helping to build a caring community. “We talk to each other about our mental well-being in order to flourish,” he said. The pilot project for The Inquiring Mind, which included eight campuses across the country, is wrapping up and a full-scale rollout is coming soon.

The need for this kind of culture shift on academic campuses is precisely why the MHCC partnered with Bell Canada, RBC, and the Rossy Family Foundation to develop a psychologi­cal health and safety framework for post-secondary students. Consultati­ons will begin in fall 2018, with the aim of helping academic institutio­ns better protect students’ mental wellness.

In addition to these programs, the MHCC recognizes the need for sweeping societal changes. Its Youth Council, comprised of young people with lived experience of mental illness, either personally or through a family member, is an important mechanism for soliciting feedback that informs and strengthen­s policy developmen­t.

“It’s a bridge between the MHCC and youth experienci­ng mental health issues. We make sure youth are represente­d in the work of the organizati­on so changes will benefit youth,” explains Marta Sadnowski, Youth Council member.

In collaborat­ion with the Youth

Council, the MHCC has created a number of tools to spark dialogue and inspire real change. Chief among them is an adaptation of the organizati­on’s signature achievemen­t, Changing Directions, Changing Lives: The Mental Health Strategy for Canada.

“Our Youth Council worked tirelessly to adapt the Strategy into a highly accessible format. Their enthusiast­ic effort saw the transforma­tion of a 150-page, often technical document, into an engaging, fresh and relevant take on mental health in this country,” said Louise Bradley, president and CEO of the MHCC. The Mental Health Strategy for Canada: Youth Perspectiv­e ensures that voices of young people are meaningful­ly incorporat­ed into mental health advocacy, and it’s accompanie­d by a video and discussion guide to help service providers understand what young people want and need when it comes to their own mental health care.

Food for thought: A youth perspectiv­e on recovery-oriented practice breaks down what youth see as some of the core principals of recovery-oriented mental health and addictions services. Using the metaphor of a restaurant interactio­n between a server and a patron, it provides a lightheart­ed demonstrat­ion of concepts key to recovery.

The MHCC prioritize­s youth engagement, amplifying their input and suggestion­s to develop authentic products and training that reflect the needs of Canada’s diverse youth population.

“If we aren’t investing in our youth, we’ll pay compound interest in the future,” said Bradley. “We are privileged as a Commission to be the voice and venue to showcase the brilliance and compassion of our Youth Council. These are young people who’ve been there, done that and aren’t satisfied with the status quo. If we take our lead from them, the sky is the limit.”

We make sure youth are represente­d in the work of the organizati­on so changes will benefit youth.

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 ?? PHOTO: KEESIC DOUGLAS ?? Ashley Callingbul­l, a 28-year-old Cree First Nations woman — actor, model, former Mrs Universe, activist and motivation­al speaker — shared inspiratio­nal remarks at the Indigenous HEADSTRONG summit held on Tsuu T’ina First Nation on Sept. 26.
PHOTO: KEESIC DOUGLAS Ashley Callingbul­l, a 28-year-old Cree First Nations woman — actor, model, former Mrs Universe, activist and motivation­al speaker — shared inspiratio­nal remarks at the Indigenous HEADSTRONG summit held on Tsuu T’ina First Nation on Sept. 26.

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