Importance of youth engagement

Why it matters

Whether it's the service provider improving the way they deliver care, or the young person partnering in the treatment process, youth engagement changes lives. We’ve compiled evidence that shows the benefits of youth engagement specific to child and youth mental health.

Positive outcomes

Youth engagement is linked to positive outcomes for young people, adults, agencies and communities, read how below:  


Youth have a right to be involved in decisions that affect them

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is the most widely ratified human rights treaty. It is an agreement between countries that recognizes, protects and respects the dignity of all children, and ensures the necessary environment for each child to develop to their full potential. The UNCRC was adopted by the United Nations in 1989 and ratified by Canada in 1991. Participation Rights was one of the most ground-breaking articles created within the UNCRC:

“[...] the child who is capable of forming his or her own views has the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child” — UNCRC Article 12
“The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice.” - UNCRC Article 13

According to the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services’ (MCYS) Strategic Framework “every child and youth has a voice”. 1 For MCYS, child and youth mental health agencies should:

  • Create opportunities to involve clients in program design, implementation, delivery and assessment on an ongoing basis.
  • Establish safe forums and activities for clients to have their requests and concerns with services heard and responded to.
  • Support young people involved in services to develop and exemplify leadership both in the context of the services they receive and as active members of their community.
  • Promote opportunities for children and youth involved in services to participate in community activities.
  • Establish opportunities within services for young people to build leadership skills.

Youth aren't always getting the help they need

  • One in five youth in Canada struggles with mental health challenges and 70 percent of mental health issues begin in childhood and adolescence. 2
  • Young people aged 15 to 24 are more likely to experience mental health and/or substance use issues than any other age group. 3
  • Approximately 90 percent of youth who die by suicide have mental health issues at the time of their death. 4

Despite this clear need to support young people’s mental health and well-being, only one in six children and youth with mental health challenges are able to access the services they need.  5 This low number is particularly worrisome since most mental health challenges begin in childhood and adolescence; early intervention is critical and appropriate supports should be put in place as soon as possible.6 By initiating youth engagement in your organization, you may gain important insights into why youth aren’t accessing mental health services, and create the conditions necessary to engage young people in shaping relevant and responsive interventions, when and where they need them.

Youth turn to their peers for support

Research shows that in times of need, youth prefer to talk to peers rather than a professional, 7 which makes peers important partners in helping to promote mental health awareness and contribute to making services more accessible.

Quick Stats:

  • 86% of youth say they prefer to talk to a peer 7
  • Fewer than 5% of youth would talk to a professional 7

Youth engagement helps build on important protective factors related to mental health, since it provides opportunities for youth to connect with their peers, build networks, and increase the sense that they’re not alone.

Featured story: The Jack Project
The Jack Project is a national network of young people who are striving to transform the way we think, talk about and address mental health. They focus on peer-to-peer engagement – youth sharing stories and experiences can yield the greatest impact on decreasing stigma and enhancing mental health promotion. They also host national summits and events with youth and key partners, lead local chapters of students across the country and share a collection of resources to support youth mental health.


Peers are important partners in mental health promotion and stigma reduction

The fear of being judged, being seen as weak or being alienated from peers are often reasons why youth don’t seek help from mental health services. 8, 9, 10 Rather than being supported toward recovery, too often young people and families experience shame, blame or bullying 7, 11 that can lead to lower self-esteem and amplify already existing symptoms or stress related to coping with mental health challenges. 12, 13,14 Engaging youth as partners in reducing the stigma of mental illness is critical. Research shows that evidence-informed interventions that have the greatest impact on reducing the barriers related to stigma are one-on-one interactions with a person who has lived experience. 14 Strategies include:

  • Engaging children, youth and families with lived experiences of mental health challenges to design, plan, deliver and co-develop initiatives.
  • Having trained speakers who engage audiences with dynamic discussion and share real-life experiences that are focused on stories of recovery and hope rather than reinforcing negative attitudes. 8
  • Carrying out mental health awareness sessions and providing targeted education about treatment. 14
  • Ensuring that mental health interventions happen across all youth-serving sectors, such as youth justice, education and health care.

Featured story: Painting for a cause In partnership with YouthNet and the Ottawa School of Art, the Centre supports youth to work together to develop mental health themed murals with the goal of reducing stigma. In 2006, youth reflected on the stigma of mental illness, which they defined as: The labeling or discrimination against an individual or group of individuals on the basis of observed or presumed mental health difficulties.



Featured story: Reducing stigma through video
For the past six years, Children's Mental Health Ontario celebrates Children's Mental Health Week with a YouTube video contest called Change the View. Ontario youth are invited to make a short video that shows how we can all take the stigma out of kids’ mental health issues like stress, depression, ADHD, bullying and psychosis. Here are this year’s winning videos.

Adolescence is a critical time in development

Adolescence is a time of change. Youth are developing physically, cognitively, socially and emotionally at an incredibly fast rate. Supporting mental health requires that we adopt a developmental lens throughout the lifespan, but the changes happening in this particular life stage make it even more important to engage youth.15 Guided by leading edge research, the Ministry of Children and Youth Services has designed developmental maps that help identify and describe common and predictable events in youth development. While every young person’s experience is unique depending on context, understanding what’s happening with youth, will help you tailor your supports as different stages of development. To learn more, check out the Ministry’s developmental maps.

Youth engagement leads to better health outcomes for young people, adults, agencies and communities

Providing youth with opportunities for positive development in mental health organizations creates a ripple effect of positive outcomes, with benefits for young people, adults, agencies and communities. For more on positive outcomes, read our Positive outcomes section above.

  • 1. MCYS Strategic Framework 2008-2012
  • 2. Government of Canada, 2006
  • 3. Statistics Canada, 2013
  • 4. Gould et al., 2006
  • 5. John, Offord, Boyle & Racine, 1995
  • 6. CAMH, 2014
  • 7. a. b. c. d. Davidson & Manion, 1996
  • 8. a. b. Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2013
  • 9. Moskos et al., 2007
  • 10. Rusch, Angermeyer & Corrigan, 2005
  • 11. Kelly, 2005
  • 12. Moses, 2009
  • 13. LeFrancois, 2008
  • 14. a. b. c. Romer & Bock, 2008
  • 15. NSW Kids and Families, 2014