Last week we held our teen mental health panel. It was minus 30 outside. We had more panelists than attendees. Ok, if I’m being honest, we had twice as many panelists as attendees. We did the only thing that made sense: we put our chairs in a circle and began by asking attendees what they wanted to hear. Those attending received specific, thorough information tailored to exactly they seeking. I was so inspired by what I heard that I want to share my impressions in this blog.

I’ll start with Youth Net, a “for youth, by youth” program “rooted in youth engagement.” Youth participate in 8-10 week-long activities generated from their suggestions. Current offerings include hiking, snowboarding, girls talk, guys talk, and yoga. The lively and experienced facilitators kept returning to the importance of choice. Choice to say no, choice to participate, choice in making more choices available. It turns out that young people like choice. In fact, it seems to be crucial to their engagement.

Youth Net also has a YAC or Youth Advisory Committee. YAC is a word we heard often throughout the evening. In Youth Net’s case, “the YAC is a youth advocacy group that works towards promoting mental health and destigmatizing mental illness and its treatment.” Youth are given bus tickets and snacks in return for their time and input. Other agencies seek out the advice of the Youth Net YAC when planning new programs, creating new brochures, etc. Young people seem to like being asked their opinion about things that concern them.

Dare to Dream is grounded in the principle that youth are the best initiators and implementers of programs designated for them. I even heard the program youth coordinator, Muna Mohamed, use the term “healing through engagement.” So youth-designed programs not only seem to better speak to youth, they also empower the young initiators by sheer engagement. Dare to Dream will grant awards of between $1000-$5000 for youth-led project ideas that promote mental health and wellbeing. I highly recommend readers to go to their website to see their inspiring “Project Showcase” of past winners.

Project Acorn is “a radical community-building space for youth aged 16-24 from LGBTQ+ identities, families, and communities” that is also, surprise, surprise, governed by a YAC. The project centres on a yearly summer camp that is “a mixture of workshops, speakers, typical camp activities, and magic that come together to create the most mind-opening and mind-blowing program possible.”

As I was organizing this panel, I quickly realized that a panel about mental health options for youth in Ottawa was simply impossible without involving the Youth Services Bureau (YSB). It’s huge. It’s bilingual. The crisis line and walk-in clinic are only two of YSB’s excellent resources that I encourage you to investigate. The YSB has its own range of YACS, addressing issues affecting: youth from various ethno-cultural identities; young women; GLBTTQ youth; and sexual health. Youth who participate in YSB’s Youth Advisory Committees are often paid for the time they give. Young people seem to enjoy adults valuing the time they give to make our community healthier and more inclusive.

Finally, The Bridge Program is a new program for youth aged 12-15 operating out of the Integral Health Clinic that provides mental health support in a small group format over a 6-week period. While not youth-run, The Bridge Program structures its discussion and programming around the issues facing its participating youth.

The purpose of our Compass-sponsored panel series is not to talk about Compass per se. But during the panel, I was finding it difficult to resist pointing out the similarities between our approach to young people and the approach of the successful and innovative programs described above (thank goodness for this blog)! In the end, it’s all about trusting young people to make choices, to be innovators and initiators, to have a sense of agency, and to value their input. The organizations above have tailored their approaches to what seems to best serve their populations and, via the creativity and healing that emerge through the process, all of us.

Another thing that emerged from listening to the panelists was the importance of providing free food! To that end, we are hosting a pizza and screening of curated TED talks on education on Thursday, February 27th at 6:30 p.m. at the Churchhill Recreation Centre. Please join us. We only hope it won’t be 30 below.