Youth Association for Academics,
Athletics and Character Education

Being Proactive II

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Looking after the Mental Health & Well-Being of Children and Youth – Being Proactive II 2013 conference

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How can we ensure that our communities and schools are environments characterized by social cohesion and trust, so that all children and youth –  especially those who are disadvantaged, marginalized and racialized – have access to the social, cultural, psychological, educational and material resources that sustain mental health and well-being?

On Friday March 22nd, 2013, participants at the Being Proactive II: Looking after the Mental Health and Well-Being of Children and Youth conference gathered to share insights on how to better provide community, schooling, institutional and societal supports that nurture coping strategies and foster resilience in children and youth. About 200 participants (mental health professionals, educators, individuals working in the criminal justice system, front-line workers, and children and youth professionals from the various social service sectors) explored ways to address systemic barriers such as poverty, racism, and violence that affect the mental health and well-being of today’s youth. An often repeated theme was that the issues cannot be addressed solely at the individual or family level, but must be situated within a more comprehensive framework of organizational change and societal transformation.

A collaboration of Department of Justice Canada (DOJ),  Ministry of Children and Youth Services (MCYS),    York Centre for Education and Community (YCEC), Toronto District School Board (TDSB), and the Youth Association for Academics, Athletics, and Character Education (Y.A.A.A C.E), this 2013 conference built on themes that arose in the inaugural 2012 Being Proactive Conference as well as in the 2011 DOJ/YCEC discussion forum. Keynote presentations, workshops, and panel discussions focused on how our systems, communities, and schools can become more proactive in supporting the mental health and well-being of children and youth, especially those who may experience heightened vulnerability due to demographic factors.

Keynote speaker Dr. Alvin Curling, Strategic Advisor on Youth Opportunities to the Minister of Children and Youth Services (MCYS) opened the session, and drew on findings from the Review of the Roots of Youth Violence report (authored by The Honourable Roy McMurtry and Dr. Curling) and on the ensuing strategic directions encapsulated in Ontario’s Youth Action Plan. To support children and youth who experience disengagement and disconnection from their schools and communities because of incarceration, poverty, violence, loss, neglect, and discrimination, Dr. Curling emphasized four pillars for future action: (a) attention to social context, (b) a youth policy framework, (c) a neighbourhood capacity and empowerment strategy, and (d) integrated governance. Keys to amelioration are founded upon the recognition that it is not mental health nor poverty nor race that causes violence per se, but rather a complex, deeply-rooted interplay of factors that include indifference to the conditions of poverty, lack of viable treatment options for the 1 in 5 children in Ontario with mental health issues, and, for too many minority and racialized youth, the daily impact of racism: “Racism strikes at the core of self-identity and casts a shadow on the soul.” As Dr. Curling noted, his mission for change “is to make sure that community input is being heard and being respected” because young people’s agency and meaningful community input are crucial to moving forward.

Dr. Kwame McKenzie, Senior Scientist, Health Services & Health Equity Research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) followed with the second keynote of the morning. He noted that the roots of youth violence are very similar to the roots of mental health issues. Making reference to research studies, he pointed out that racism is a serious mental health threat, as shown by the fact that victims of racism have a 300% increase in the risk of experiencing depression and psychosis, and immigrants in low-income neighbourhoods have a 200% greater risk of developing schizophrenia. Calling for a whole school approach in which youth voice is heard, and arguing that medical institutions need to begin collecting demographic data in order to better understand and serve their community catchment populations, he advocated for dreaming bigger: “Everybody expects to co-produce their own destiny – plan or be planned.”

Afternoon keynote speaker Dr. Michael Ungar, Co-Director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University, spoke on Why Children and Youth Go to School, and Why they Don’t. Deconstructing the concept of “resilience,” he explained that it involves the capacity of individuals to navigate their way to resources that sustain their well-being, as well as their capacity individually and contextually to negotiate for such resources to be provided and experienced in culturally meaningful ways. Using the example of “Tony,” an African Nova Scotian high school boy who experienced school as a safe place only when he transferred to a school that included other Black youth as his classmates, Dr. Ungar argued that a contextualized understanding of the lives of youth is imperative – because, although not always widely recognized, contextual factors matter more than individual factors in terms of developing resilience.

Dr. Judy Finlay, Associate Professor in the School of Children and Youth Services at Ryerson University, former Ontario Child Advocate (1991-2007), was the final keynote speaker of the day. As co-chair of Mamow Sha-way-gi-kay-win: The North South Partnership for Children in Remote Northern Communities, Dr. Finlay described this partnership as representing the coming together of First Nations chiefs, elders, youth and community members living in 30 remote communities in north-western Ontario, and individuals and voluntary organizations based in southern Ontario. In her talk, Dr. Finlay distinguished a true “partnership” (from a superficial one) as a commitment to an enduring and respectful relationship between all partners. She spoke about inequities experienced by Aboriginal communities, and highlighted the importance of youth empowerment through, for example, learning how to write proposals for grants, among other initiatives that lead to self-directed governance and agency.

As noted by conference moderator Dr. Grace-Edward Galabuzi, Associate Professor, Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University, it is evident that there is substantial hunger for further work on supporting the mental health and well-being of children and youth in our schools and communities. May the Being Proactive conferences be a forum to champion and foster this important work!

Please make sure to (a) visit the Being Proactive II conference website for keynote speakers’ power point material (b) check out our conference video clips and (c) read the conference report.