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For Youth, By Youth: Empowering Change
First, let’s start at the beginning.
Ever since I can remember, I have lived with mental illness. Whether it was around me in loved ones, friends, or quietly roaring within myself — it was there. It was a long road… from age 9, until 18 with no medical treatment or therapy. I’ll spare you the details of what went on behind closed doors in between. Between the ages of 18 and 22, I got exponentially worse — though there were periods of remission — since then; with talk therapy, medication, behavioural therapy and lifestyle changes I have grown better than I could have ever thought was possible. But a few of the people I loved most didn’t make it here with me.
In the first month of 2013, I lost one of my best friends, Chris, who was a protective and goofy brother to me- a son to my mum, and a big brother to my little sister. In 2010 I lost a close friend and workmate. At the end of 2013, I lost the man who had become a father figure to me — the war vet that, in spite of daily facing his own demons, had wiped my tears and talked me down through these first two losses. I lost a very big part of me, a part of me that will never be filled by anyone else.
At the time of Canada’s last stat collection (2012), it was estimated approximately 11 Canadians end their lives by suicide each day. An additional 77-111 people in Canada will be left to grieve the loss of that life every single day. If those numbers don’t make you realize the importance of suicide prevention — I don’t know what will. We can’t let these numbers continue. I couldn’t let it continue.
It was only 2 years after these stats were collected that I sat full of nervous anticipation and passion as I furiously typed my application letter for the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s Youth Advisory Council. Armed with a vengeance, and ready to conquer the crap out of the monster we call suicide , I began my mission: the inside job. My goal — become educated on our mental health system, and the way it affects youth — and fix it. Pretty reasonable, right??? Well, I’ll keep you posted…!
So far, i’ve been on the MHCC youth council for two years. I’ve attended countless events for mental health for youth and marginalized group, been involved as a youth voice on many of the MHCC’s sub-committees and been part of the very lengthy process of creating and releasing a youth-friendly version of the Mental Health Strategy for Canada. I’ve gotten to network with government officials, youth with lived experience, healthcare leaders, and some incredible youth change makers.
But the biggest thing that I’ve been missing was the connection between the policy/conferences/ documents created regarding youth, and the youth themselves. This is not something to take lightly. This is the analogy I have come up with when describing the importance of youth involvement:
“Much as you would not invite guests to dinner and then neglect to pass the food platters to their end or engage them in conversation, we must always be mindful to listen to all of our guests at the table in a mental health conversation. Inviting youth to the table as a formality does not bode well, but starves us of companions in the future and both starves and quiets our youths emotionally, intellectually and morally. Not only this, but much goes to waste as there is a surplus, falling by the wayside- of unvoiced opinions, knowledge, wisdom, and parables. When all who are at the table engage in a potluck of sorts- exchanging “food for thought”, experiences and opinions, and all are open to this, everyone leaves with a little more than they came with; nourished, re-energized, and with a feeling of camaraderie that makes the proceeding meetings more and more valuable each time.”
It was November 21. 2015 at an event co-hosted in part with the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health called Waiting for Change that I truly began to experience the truth of these words. I had been invited there to sit on a panel discussing the importance of youth-led policy. Though the discussion facilitated by the panel was riveting, extremely effective and also so very relevant, what blew my mind was our audience. It was nearly entirely comprised of youth. Emerging adults with varying personal experiences of mental health, all united here under a common passion – changing our mental health system in Canada. This was a conference primarily for, and of youth, by youth, and I was completely in awe.
These young change makers sat captivated in respectful silence for one another as many stood with the microphone to voice their opinions and feedback, share their stories, and provide encouragement for one another as they acknowledged the needs and desires of their collective community. Many applauded one another, shouted support or stood to add their personal anecdote to the points being made. During break out sessions, our audience grabbed markers, pencils, and craftables – eager and thirsty for the opportunity to give tangible suggestions and feedback to questions asked like “what do youth need while #waitingforchange?” and “what would an ideal system look like?”
It was so very apparent to me the need for these questions to be asked, and for youth to be given the opportunity to answer in a way they know they are being heard. As we say at the MHCC regarding the importance of youth engagement vs. tokenism — “You can’t talk about us without us.”
It was at this event I noticed how conceptually easy it could be. We want more than youth’s feedback. We want them leading and actively engaged in the conversation, not just responding to it! So, the mission changed — help youth become educated on our mental health system, and give them opportunity to fix it. Lucky for me, someone was way ahead of me. It was at that very same event I had the luck and privilege of sitting beside two members of Stella’s Place- Max, and Lucy.
Now, at this point in time, Stella’s Place existed to me as a reference website that I checked every so often for updates, to research. It was a hopeful, but presently, fairytale blueprint of what one day would be the place I hoped to create for struggling young people like my friend Chris; a by-and-for youth centre I wished to call the Centre of Revolution. So you have to understand, for me, hearing firsthand the exciting details of this centre called Stella’s Place – it was a dream come true! I was hungry to learn more, and so in awe of these two individuals that were part of a real life version of my own pipe dream. I listened with excitement and awe to Max and Lucy as they chimed in to help each other share the story of Stella and her mum Donna Green, and the incredible community they helped inspire.
I practically squealed with delight as they went into specifics to tell me about Stella’s Studio… In my vision of Revolution, a studio was an absolutely integral part, as Chris and I both had used writing and art to cope through our rougher times. Yes! I would LOVE to come by and check out the Studio. No, it’d be no problem to come by sometime soon! Information was exchanged, and I began impatiently waiting for the next Stella’s Studio meet up.
While I waited, I connected with Carol Krause to learn more about the Studio. Our phone call, I’m sure, sounded ridiculous. I was as excited to hear about the studio and the youth involved with it as Carol was to tell me, and we kept getting off on tangents about art, and youth, and what Stella’s Place was envisioned to become. One of the things I recall sharing with Carol was the electricity and energy I felt at the event I attended in November, and again during our conversation about Stella’s Place.
I told her something like:
“ [as a YAC for the Commission] , it’s great to go to the meetings and be a part of research and policy, and see the changes on paper, but then we leave the boardroom and come back and it’s easy to get caught up and feel disconnected. But then I see places like Stella’s Place… and it’s like Wow. This is real, living and breathing, it’s so alive.”
I still feel that way when I think about Stella’s. Regardless of how often I make it to a Studio meet-up, or get to see Max, Jenny, Lucy or one of the others at a mental health event, or speak with Carol, I still feel the warmth and the hope radiate from the community that has been created.
This hope thrives and expands, not only within Stella’s Place, but in the Peer Support training program that Stella’s Place has created in conjunction with George Brown College. By holding the training program, they are educating and training youth and young adult leaders with lived experience of mental illness in various capacities and empowering them to, in turn, support and empower others who are struggling. The education and experience that these young changemakers receive through this training emphasizes the importance of ongoing education, communication and collaboration with community resources, and most prominently how to encourage and build a peer’s self-determination and hope.
These are two of the most meaningful gifts that we can give our youth – empowerment to be self-determined, and a bright hope for their own future. It is my experience through the Peer Support training, and watching the lived day-to-day testimony of Stella’s Place staff and members that these two gifts unleash in our emerging adult generation an incredible and contagious fire. A fire to create change not only in their own life circumstances, but in others’ as well. A spark igniting their own spirit and strength to speak up and speak out about what they need and what our communities can give them, if we just listen.
What great change a bright, burning light like this could bring to our many communities! Don’t let us dampen it with ageist, ableist or political barriers, inaccessibility and biases. Don’t let the lack of youth voice on today’s many discussion platforms fool you into believing we’re apathetic to today’s issues. We’ve simply gone so long being ignored, we’ve grown tired and slowly ceased trying. Ask us, and we’ll tell you. Invite us to the conversation, and I promise you, we’ll make noise for the many who have simply been waiting for the chance. Stand to face us, and we’ll advocate for change. Stand behind us, and we’ll make it!
I can’t wait to see what a youth driven community like Stella’s will inspire in our city, and also across our nation. By youth, and for youth, change will come. It is so very alive in our walls, our members, and everything we share from our community.
It’s so alive, and it’s only going to grow.
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