YouthLink: A Safe Place
My name is Karley Lamb and in this episode of A Place for Passion, we will be exploring mental health in Ontario’s youth.
When you hear “mental illness” what do you think of? What is it? How do you think about people who have a mental illness?
Most of us are pretty aware of mental illness and may even know someone who has struggled with it. But a lot of people don’t know what the term “mental illness” really means and what they think it means could bring stigmas into their understanding.
So let’s start there:
Mental illness, as defined by the Canadian Mental Health Association is, “a recognized, medically diagnosable illness that results in the significant impairment of an individual’s cognitive, affective or relational abilities”. They also say that mental illnesses “result from biological, developmental and/or psychosocial factors and that it can be managed using physical disease approaches”. So in the same way you can prevent, diagnose, treat and rehabilitate from a flu, you can also prevent, diagnose, treat and rehabilitate a mental illness, like depression. A mental illness is just as much an illness as a physical illness. They look different and have different affects on people, but they are both diagnosable illnesses that can be treated, and they can both be hard to deal with. Another myth that the Canadian Mental Health Association addresses is the belief that “kids can’t have a mental illness like depression” because “those are adult problems”. Believe it or not, 70% of mental health problems occur in childhood or adolescence. In 2012, suicide accounted for 17% of deaths among Canada’s 10-14 year olds and for 28% of Canada’s 15-19 year olds (Centre for Addiction
and Mental Health). The mood disorder society of Canada in 2009 published a document with facts on mental illness. They say that 90% of Canadians who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental illness and that the highest rate of depression occurs in the twenty years and under age group. Their research also shows that mental disorders contribute more to the global burden of disease than all cancers combined. Mental illness is a problem for young people in today’s society, but so many of them don’t know how to deal with it or are scared that they wont be understood, and so many of them never speak up to get the help they need. Luckily, organizations like YouthLink exist.
YouthLink is a mental health centre for youth located in East Toronto. They were founded in 1914 by the Big Sisters’ Association of Metropolitan Toronto and originally they were concerned with the well being of young women, especially in the courts. In 1953, the counselling services started.
Ally (YouthLink client): “They offer free counselling.”
That is a client who used YouthLink’s resources for a few years. Let’s call her Ally.
Ally (YouthLink client): “It used to be just on Wednesdays.”
In an article from Counseling Psychology Quarterly, Ada Sinacore and Kayla D. Christiani write that, “affordability and lack of access are still significant problems as even those who have private supplemental health care insurance often face severe limits on coverage” when it comes to counseling. YouthLink offers free counselling services for ages 12-21. Starting just this past September, the counselling became available from Monday to Friday, instead of just on Wednesdays. It is a walk-in program that operates on a first come, first serve basis. Clients go in, sign a waiver the first time, fill out some paper work and then they get a one-on-one counselling service, which usually lasts about an hour. If the client finds a counsellor the really click with and they feel that counselling is the thing for them, they can sign up for on-going counselling.
Ally (YouthLink client): “You get the opportunity to try out different people and see what personality types match with you and then you can go on the on-going list and try to match with somebody that you actually connect with and I think that’s really really important.”
YouthLink is open to talking about a variety of topics such as school stress, frequent negative feelings, frequent fights with parents, experiencing a loss, drinking or drug use problems, or a personal issue that you just need to talk about. They also have a bunch of other programs other than the walk-in and on-going counselling. They have Art Therapy Groups, Youth Advocating Anti-Homophobia Awareness (YAAHA), which is a program for the LGBT community. They have residential and housing programs, family-oriented programs and programs for parents.
Ally (YouthLink client): “They just try to be really well-rounded in their approach and it shows; they have like washers and dryers in case you can’t find a place to do your laundry, like there’s amenities for you, they have a housing program. There’s a youth council, just a whole bunch of different ways to make it easier for youth to live up to their potential.”
YouthLink’s mission is “to provid[e] the support, guidance and opportunities [youth] need to make positive life choices”.
But what YouthLink really focuses on are the connections that their staff members make with the people who come in looking for support.
Me interviewing Ally: “So what makes YouthLink special?
Ally (YouthLink client): “The little things, like they give you bus tokens and tickets so that you have a way to get there and get home in case you can’t afford to get yourself to counselling because that’s a luxury for some people. They get that. All the little things, like I can’t go to YouthLink without making myself a cup of hot chocolate every time I go. I’ve met other people there and we’re waiting together and we joke about how awesome the hot chocolate is. It’s just that it makes you feel welcome.”
Me interviewing Ally: “And you’ve described YouthLink as a really positive environment, so what makes it so positive and welcoming and warm?”
Ally (YouthLink client): “… Definitely the people that work there, they are the backbone of that place.”
Even now that Ally has stopped going to YouthLink’s counselling services, she still has a close relationship with the staff.
Ally (YouthLink client): “Yeah we like to keep tabs so I’ll come in sometimes to say hi or shoot her an email. You get a really good rapport with the people there.”
The staff today consists of “social workers, child and youth workers and youth peer educators”. YouthLink is able to make special links with the people who need that connection to move towards something better. It’s a professional friendship and its something that helps people when they are figuring out how to deal with something like a mental illness. YouthLink’s counselors make the kids and young adults feel special and valued; and they are. The counseling “sessions are guided by your needs and goals” and are tailored to fit what the counselor believes will help each individual in their session.
Ally (YouthLink client): “I noticed that especially when I was in ongoing, my counselors did their absolute best to personalize my session, so as much as they were working with like basic psychological tools and coping mechanisms, they really tried to make it personal to me.”
Ally told me about one of her experiences from a counseling session she had.
Ally (YouthLink client): “One of the things that really really helped me, was I’m a big fan of art and so one day she brought in her two year old’s water board, gave me a paintbrush and some water and she was like, ‘I just want you to splash water on this board and just have at it’. I’m working with it and in my head I’m very perfectionist so I’m trying to make it go a certain way and after that she asked how I felt doing it and what was going on in my head as I was doing it and I’m telling her like I needed it to go a certain way and it didn’t really go that way, but it still came out kind of cool and it was nice to just let it out. You flick the paintbrush and that’s it and she basically turned that activity into an analogy about mindfulness. My mind was just blown. She said, ‘You have the power to move the paintbrush where you want to move it, but after you’ve made your move, where the water falls is out of your control and we have to accept that we can’t change everything. We need to focus on what we can change in ourselves.’ That was probably one of the ones that stuck with me so much, like she brought in tools specifically for me. She figured out ways to work around my own issues and it was really really amazing. I was really lucky in both the counselors I had.”
But obviously, not everyone is as lucky as Ally was. Sometimes the clients just don’t click with the counselors or maybe counseling isn’t the thing for them. And even when things do work out really well, problems can always come up.
Me interviewing Ally: “So you had a second counselor, you had to switch at one point right?”
Ally (YouthLink client): “So a big issue actually for me was I was with “her first counselor who’s named we removed, but “she got another job and it was very sudden. I didn’t get any warning about it. So on her last session she basically just told me ‘I have a new job’. I did go through a depressive state after that and after a while I started going to” her second counselor whose name we also removed “and I was so scared that it wasn’t going to work, but we clicked right away. I think I definitely did get really lucky, it’s not like that for everybody.” But luckily, it was like that for Ally and this positive experience is common at YouthLink and with other counseling services. According to Sinacore and Christiani in their article, counseling psychology is committed “to health, wellness, remediation, prevention, psycho-education and advocacy. It also highlights its orientation to collaborative, developmental and multicultural models, as well as its focus on transitions across the life span.” And those transitions play a big part in mental illness in young people. Transitions mean change and change is usually pretty scary. Between the ages of 12 and 21, there’s a lot to be scared and confused about. And if a teenager has already developed mental health problems, these times of change can be even harder. The Mental Health Commission of Canada says that, “Transition-aged youth who disengage from mental health services are at a significantly higher risk of developing more enduring mental health problems later in life.”
Ally (YouthLink client): “The one thing that she told me that I think has stuck with me my whole life up to date has been that change is constant and it’s the only thing you can rely on.”
And this is why we need programs like YouthLink in today’s society. They give positive experiences and they support people who really just need guidance and a helping hand.
Me interviewing Ally: “What is YouthLink for you?”
Ally (YouthLink client): “For me, YouthLink is the first place that I felt safe. It’s really comforting to be validated by people.”
But more than that, YouthLink offers opportunities to the youth who use their services. They give them a chance to give back to the community.
Ally (YouthLink client): “They have places to donate. I took it upon myself; it was a really big deal for me, to donate and to feel like I had some control over something, to feel like I was giving back. I had the privilege of watching a little girl take my grade five grad dress and her social worker was there with her and she was like ‘maybe now you’ll have something to wear to parties; if you need to go to things’. In so many ways, I’ve been able to see what I have, what I don’t have, what I can give. It makes me feel like I can reach my potential. It’s really really shaped who I am.”
Jean M.Twenge, who has a Ph.D. wrote in her post on “Psychology Today” that, “studies conclude that anxiety and depression are markedly higher than they were in earlier eras.” Suicide rates in youth decreased after the early 1990s, but “most other measures of mental health have not improved”. YouthLink is one of many places where people care and where people are passionate about life in the Toronto area. They have such a positive influence on the young people connected to them. Mental illness is an issue that our society is aware of and yet so many people struggle with it, especially youth because they don’t know how to deal with what they’re feeling. YouthLink gives them a safe place where a listening ear is waiting to make a world of difference.
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By: Karley Lamb