Youth engagement openings in advocacy and education
Advocacy, in the context of child and youth mental health, offers young people the opportunity to express their perspectives with the aim of shifting policy and creating systemic change. Youth advocacy encompasses the use of education, communication, leadership skills, and evidence to make a compelling case for change. 1
Indicators of success:
- Youth are engaged in their communities and co-create action plans to influence decision-makers and create system change
- Youth are supported to safely share their stories to increase awareness and promote social change
- Young people have a voice in influencing mental health systems
Youth are the experts on their own experience and bring valuable insight into issues that matter to them. Some youth may have witnessed the negative impact that substance abuse can have on people’s lives. Others may have experienced discrimination because of their sexual orientation. These struggles can spark a desire to speak out, raise awareness and help others experiencing similar challenges. Youth can be powerful advocates, influencing change within political, economic and social systems 2.
Youth engagement in advocacy leads to many positive psychosocial outcomes. Studies show that it can contribute to an increase in personal responsibility 3, social and civic competence 4 and a sense of efficacy and self-esteem 5. Participation can also provide youth with experiential education, skills development, strengthen academic achievement and increase problem-solving capacity 6,7. Some youth believe that community service teaches them more than they can learn in the classroom, including skills needed to challenge the social constructs that lead to poverty, analyze the causes of racism and reflect critically on several other systemic issues 7,<8,4.
Youth Engagement and Action for Health! (YEAH!) is a youth advocacy and community-empowerment program that engages local youth and adult mentors in advocating for neighborhood improvements in physical activity and increased access to healthy food. YEAH! empowers youth to assess their environments, prioritize problems, and develop and implement a plan to advocate for change with decision makers.9 According to an evaluation of their programming, providing brief training to youth, paired with a practical manual and support from adult mentors, produced positive outcomes 1
Youth are supported to safely share their stories
Within the mental health sector, youth can use their stories to design public education and mental health promotion strategies. Adapted from the Declaration of Accountability 10, here are some ways to ensure the emotional safety of youth who tell their story:
- Help youth understand the potential risks and benefits of sharing their story in public. Risks and benefits can extend to the storyteller's family and friends.
- Reinforce that sharing personal experiences needs to be the choice of the storyteller. No person should feel obligated to share a personal story as a way of being heard or making broad-based change.
- Communicate that the use of personal stories is reserved for audiences who can respectfully hear the story and have the power to implement change.
- Strive to ensure that the motives of both the storyteller and the organization (i.e., why is the story being shared) are made clear and be discussed ahead of time.
- Make sure that measures are in place to support the storyteller before, during and after the sharing of personal experiences.
- Recognize that storytellers have multiple identities; the stories that are shared should not define the young person.
Young people have a voice in influencing mental health systems
There are several opportunities for youth advocacy in mental health both provincially and nationally:
- Mental Health Commission of Canada: The Mental Health Commission of Canada recognized that empowering and collaborating with youth is essential to improving the mental health care system. As a result, they formed a Youth Council, which adapted the Mental Health Strategy for Canada to appropriately reflect youth voice: The Mental Health Strategy for Canada: A Youth Perspective. They believe that this will make mental health policy more accessible to those, particularly youth, advocating for improvements to the mental health system.
- The New Mentality: Disable the Label The New Mentality is a network of young people across Ontario that advocate for mental health promotion and stigma reduction in partnership with local agencies. This advocacy program encourages dedicated youth and adult allies who work together to organize and facilitate regionally specific projects, fostering a strong youth-adult partnerships. Through their annual camp Disable the Label, the New Mentality facilitates knowledge sharing and networking opportunities. Members from each new mentality group connect and network at the camp, sharing projects, challenges and successes.
- Children’s Mental Health Ontario: Each year, CMHO launches a YouTube video contest: Change the View to celebrate Children's Mental Health Week . For a chance to win $1,500, Ontario youth are invited to make a short video demonstrating how to remove the stigma from kids’ mental health issues, such as stress, depression, ADHD, bullying and psychosis.