Opinion: It takes new thinking to fight our youth mental-health crisis

Opinion: It takes new thinking to fight our youth mental-health crisis

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Karen Young

We are in a youth mental-health crisis. It is in our homes, our schools and on the front lines of agencies serving kids and families. It can’t be ignored.

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In 2021, visits to Alberta Children’s Hospital for mental-health concerns were 36 per cent higher than in 2018, and we know that 15- to 24-year-olds are more likely to experience mental illness or substance-use disorders than any other age group. Relative to other Canadian provinces, Alberta youth have one of the highest rates of first contact with the emergency department for addiction and mental-health issues.

The stats are stark, but so many of us know the situation first-hand through the kids in our lives. I know one young woman who lost four high school classmates in the past year due to mental-health issues. This is beyond tragic.

We need to act now to transform our community into one of the best places in the world to be a kid. I use the word “transform” because we are not that place now. Instead, we are a community where too many of our youth struggle.

This is not to say many in our community are not already mobilized for the mental health of our young people, but their work is often in saving lives in crisis rather than a collaborative approach that creates the conditions that foster mental wellness.

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I often think of the parable of the River Story. Two people walking by a river notice a child being swept away, on the verge of drowning and crying for help. They dive in and pull the child to safety. However, they soon realize there is another child calling for help in the water. They jump in and save the next child. But more children keep floating down the river in need of help. But as one prepares to jump in again, they see their partner walking away upstream.

“Where are you going?” they ask. “There are still kids in the river.”

Their partner replies: “Let’s stop all these children from ending up in the river in the first place.”

This is a well-known story for those who specialize in prevention. But in a crisis, with many of our youth drowning in the proverbial river, we can forget the lesson in favour of saving lives now. The reality is that we must do both. We need more “upstream” thinking to support youth mental wellness in our community.

This leads us to the largest undertaking in the history of United Way of Calgary and Area. Over the past year, we began Planet Youth — a proven, data-driven and evidenced-based model to make our community the best place on the planet to be a kid. Unlike targeted interventions, this model relies on a collaborative effort from our entire community to be successful: local youth, parents, caregivers, teachers, schools, communities, agencies, governments, researchers, policy-makers, and practitioners. Together, we are developing a set of Calgary-specific programs and policies that will create the environments and conditions our youth need to thrive.

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That localization includes an Indigenous parallel, honouring both Indigenous and Western ways of knowing, being and doing. It also requires a local youth perspective to understand the broad, systemic problems and potential solutions. Foundational partners such as Miskanawah, Trellis Society and YMCA Calgary are just the beginning of a growing list of leaders making Planet Youth a reality.

The launch of Planet Youth is supported by multimillion-dollar, generational investments by private donors, corporations and government. Landing this will require even more. We are underway with community pilots and exploring the full range of upstream solutions we need to support every child in our region. Planet Youth is just getting started, but even the scope and scale at this point is incredible and meaningful.

We have a great opportunity before us: to come together in a way that leverages our strengths, knowledge, expertise and resources to drive toward a common vision, one that makes Calgary one of the best places in the world to grow up. If we get this right, we will see positive ripple effects well beyond mental health.

Together, we can fight this crisis. We can save lives. We can help those kids not fall in the river in the first place.

If you, or a young person you care about, need mental health or addiction support, please call 211.

Karen Young is president and CEO of United Way of Calgary and Area.


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