Approximately 1.2 million children and youth in Canada are affected by mental illness, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada. And yet, less than 20 percent will receive appropriate treatment.
Improving the mental health of young people in Canada requires the collective engagement and participation of parents, educators, health professionals and community organizations. Fortunately, Newmarket-based charity YouthSpeak is leading the way, by empowering youth to share their personal stories in assemblies and workshops across York Region.
Una Wright, Founder and Executive Director of YouthSpeak, explains that her inspiration for launching the charitable organization came from her own personal experiences. Her family has struggled with mental illness for many years. On July 18th, 2004, her son Gavin died in a weather-related car accident on his 19th birthday. Gavin was one of the first YouthSpeak speakers, who joined the team after dealing with addiction and depression. Ten years later, her eldest son Kyle died by suicide at age 31, after struggling with bipolar disorder.
Wright is no stranger to the overwhelming feelings of sadness, loss, fear, powerlessness, judgment and guilt that come with such unbearable loss. But through YouthSpeak, she has found a way to give value and meaning to the challenges her family has faced. “Through the process of healing others, we help ourselves,” she says.
Since its founding in 2003, YouthSpeak has given countless presentations through schools and community groups across Ontario, reaching over 200,000 students, teachers and parents to date. The speaking engagements are led by a paid team of 15 youth with lived experiences just like Wright, who share their personal stories from a place of strength and positivity. “It takes a lot of courage to share the hard parts of our lives,” says Wright. “But to know that it could impact at least one person – it can be life-changing.”
YouthSpeak trains their presenters to share in an honest and safe manner, while working with them to develop their leadership and facilitation skills. As part of the interactive assembly, the youth presenters lead students through a variety of coping strategies while engaging with them in a relatable way. Often, this inspires attendees to reach out to guidance counselors to ask for help, or talk to their parents for the first time about the challenges they’re struggling with.
It’s all part of the organization’s mission to improve the mental health and well-being of young people within our communities. According to Youth Mental Health Canada, youth are among the highest risk populations for suicide in the country. And yet, wait lists for supports and services dedicated to youth in a mental health crisis are one year or more. Organizations like YouthSpeak play a crucial role in providing the much-needed services and support to youth who are facing such challenges.
The speakers of YouthSpeak know firsthand that by sharing their stories of overcoming devastating circumstances, they can give hope and shift the trajectory of someone else’s life. “It’s hard to put into words how wonderful it is to be a part of a bigger movement like that,” says Wright. “We’re creating positive change in the world – and this gives us a reason to get up and come to work every day.”
by Charlotte Ottaway