‘Their excitement is contagious’

Teen girl in depression, isolated on whiteYouth Net, CHEO’s youth-focused program, fights mental health stigma with engaging student-led initiatives

Ask just about any parent to describe typical conversations with their teenager, and they’ll likely reply: “awkward,” or “non-existent.” But teens sometimes need to open up to someone about what is going on in their lives. And if they are experiencing any mental health issues, they’re more likely to open up to a friend or a peer.

And the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario’s Youth Net/Réseau Ado, which works from a youth engagement philosophy and offers alternative support services, recently released a video on YouTube to reach out to teens about mental health, part of its ongoing efforts to break the stigma around mental health issues.

“The video is unscripted and very candid,” says Taylor Linseman, Youth Net program coordinator. “The message, which is from teens to teens, is to reassure them that we all have mental health that we have to take care of, just like physical health. And there is someone there to talk to.”

Zsofia Cook is Youth Net’s Anti-Stigma Promotion Coordinator. Last spring, the program hosted a summit attended by over 100 students. “We got involved to provide support and encouragement for the Student Wellness Committees that are set up in various high schools.

“We wanted to focus on the broader concept of wellness not only because that includes physical health, it includes a lot under a mental health umbrella.”
Student Morgan Joseph is involved in – and passionate about – the program. “I met Zsofia Cook and was really impressed,” says Joseph, who is in Grade 12 at St. Mark’s High School in Manotick. “So I followed up and found out how to set up a committee at my school.”

Joseph reached out to teachers to talk to students about setting up a group to talk about mental health. She was pleasantly surprised when 37 students showed up.

“I was really surprised at the number,” says Joseph, “and they were all so passionate. We talked about a lot of things, like what to do when you feel sad or stressed and where to get help.”
The students implemented an action plan with a monthly theme. November’s focus was male youth, to coincide with the Movember movement.

“Teen-to-teen and student-to-student is so important,” says Jaden Haye, a Grade 11 student at St. Francis Xavier High School. “Your friends and peers know what you’re going through and understand those dynamics and that’s crucial.”

Sometimes a referral to get more help is the next step, and there are adult allies available through Youth Net. “Referring someone to get more help and reassuring them that taking the next step is important too,” says

“The great thing about these support programs is that they train you on helping a fellow teen move forward and get the help they need and remove the stigma.”

Getting rid of the stigma is key, Haye says, to help teens open up. “Physical illnesses get sympathy; mental health issues not so much. But both are so important for your overall well-being.”

Haye and Joseph are, of course, enthusiastic about incorporating technology. YouTube helps them get their message out. And they agree that for shy people, platforms like Facebook or Twitter are a safe way to communicate and stay connected. But they caution against being overly dependent on social media.

“Technology only takes you so far,” says Joseph. “If it gives you comfort and keeps you connected, that’s a good thing. But real relationships, being face-to-face with someone, is really important.”

Haye says technology – in moderation – can be a benefit. “But it’s in the way you use it,” she says, “and if it’s isolating, then it’s not good.”

Youth Net reaches 25 high schools from four different school boards. The aim is to reach the entire high school population of approximately 20,000 youth in Eastern Ontario.

And Cook and Linseman have no doubt that with the help of passionate students like Haye and Joseph, they’ll do it.

“Their excitement is contagious and we’re both impressed with these teens’ enthusiasm.”

Check out Youth Net at www.youthnet.on.ca and on Facebook: www.facebook.com/YNRAOttawa. Listen to excellent teen-to-teen mental health wisdom on YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=LK_WKWojwBw.