Reprinted from "First Responders for Young People" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 3 (2), pp. 31-32
“I developed severe obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) soon after we came to Canada. My family and I have kept this a secret because of our fears. What does having OCD mean for my career and relationships? What will happen to me? For a long time, I suffered in silence.”
Many young people can identify with John,* a former Youth Net facilitator. They understand the fear, loneliness—and, often, the silence that comes with struggling with a mental illness. An estimated 20% of Canadians will be affected by a mental illness in their lifetimes.1
What is Youth Net?
Youth Net is a mental health program designed to address the mental health needs of young people. It aims at removing the stigma of mental illness and making professional help more youth friendly. Youth Net facilitators who have personal experience dealing with mental illness deliver 90-minute sessions to groups in high schools.
The Youth Net model was established in Ottawa in 1994. It arose from a Canadian Psychiatric Association study involving youth discussion groups. The study showed that these young people were more willing to talk to peers about their stresses than they were to professionals. Young people often don’t feel comfortable communicating with authority figures about their mental health. They feel awkward and don’t think adults will understand them. Youth Net facilitators are able to connect with youth on a personal level. The facilitators are university/college students in their early twenties who can relate to experiences that young people are dealing with.
The purpose of the Youth Net program is threefold: education, prevention and follow-up. The “older youth leading younger youth” focus group model creates a supportive climate for young people to access help for mental health concerns.
Ending the silent struggle
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Youth Net provides students with an open forum to discuss and debunk myths surrounding mental illness. These myths may be preventing them and their peers from asking for professional help. Young people have the opportunity to learn more about mental health, discuss their stressors and find out about the youth-friendly help available in their community.
Some youth may be struggling with a dormant mental illness that becomes active as a result of stress. Often, these youth are unaware that they are experiencing symptoms of mental illness and continue to struggle without professional intervention. Others have been living with mental illness and are currently receiving professional support. The program tries to catch those students who are going without help and struggling in silence.
To help with follow-up, Youth Net screens for suicidality, using a self-report screening form. The screening form is a tool that is completed by students and viewed by Youth Net facilitators halfway through presentations. The screening form allows facilitators to identify and follow-up with any young person showing signs of a mental health problem. The Youth Net experience in classrooms has shown that at-risk youth don’t always show typical suicidal risks or signs. Monitoring youth disclosure during discussion groups, together with assessing the screening forms, allows facilitators to identify youth who are struggling with their mental health. If needed, the facilitator will link the youth with professional help in the community.
If you would like more information about Youth Net, please contact [email protected] or phone 604-943-1878.
John describes his involvement with Youth Net as a facilitator as being an important part of his recovery. “I have received tremendous emotional support from other facilitators who were around my age group. I got a chance to hear other stories. I got a chance to work toward reducing stigma associated with mental illnesses. All this helped me vastly.”
Through education, prevention and follow-up, Youth Net helps young people reach their fullest potential. As John says, “I have to live my life to the fullest. And now, thanks to Youth Net and other programs, I know that if I can overcome OCD, I can overcome anything.”
About the authorsGemma and Sophia are Youth Net program coordinators working out of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Delta Branch.
Health Canada. (2002). A Report on Mental Illnesses in Canada. Ottawa, ON: Author.