Youth mental health on the West Shore: what supports are available and what’s to come?

Local experts suggest talking, exercise, healthy meals and time outside can help while waiting for mental health support.

The West Shore community is coming together and taking strides to provide youth with more mental health support amidst calls to action following the recent suicide death of a Langford teen.

“Unfortunately we all know when a crisis happens, people seem to rally a bit more,” says Wendy Hobbs, a West Shore community member and Sooke School District trustee. “I just think it’s really important that our community as a whole start getting together and rallying around this cause for youth.”

The Discourse has compiled a list of mental resources available to youth on the West Shore, including who to call for immediate help. Find those here. 

Calls for more youth mental health services

The Canadian Mental Health Association says mental illnesses are common in children and youth. About one in seven young people in B.C. will experience a mental illness at some point, with many mental illnesses showing up before the age of 18.

Sixteen-year-old Andre Courtemanche of Langford died by suicide in Goldstream Provincial Park in early January this year. The Times Colonist reports that he was struggled with his mental health since he was 14. His family says they waited months to connect him with a psychiatrist as his mental health deteriorated.

Family and friends of Courtemanche launched a GoFundMe page following his death. Their goal is to raise money to install barriers along the Goldstream Trestle, provide counselling for Courtemanche’s family and also support mental health in the community. Courtemanche’s mother has publicly called for better and faster mental health treatment to be made available, CTV News reports. A petition was also launched to “increase immediate mental health supports in B.C.” As of Feb. 3, the petition had already garnered over 6,000 signatures.

Community members in a public Facebook group called “Remembering Andre Courtemanche” have also voiced their support for better and more immediate mental health services to be made available to youth. 

What can be done while waiting for mental health supports?

Jennifer Munro, interim co-executive director and clinical director at the Pacific Centre Family Services Association in Colwood, says there is a need for more mental health supports across the board. Parents also need more education on things like social media literacy and how to support the mental wellbeing of the youth in their lives. She says a combination of increased access to social media and pornography, a struggling economy and a negative stigma associated with mental illness contribute to the mental health struggles youth are facing.

The Pacific Centre Family Services Association has a child and youth program that serves the West Shore community. It offers outreach, counselling and group activities. The organization also offers programs like YouthTalk (a free, low-barrier email counselling service for youth), the Community Outreach Prevention and Education Program, a Sexual Abuse Intervention Program and a Crime Reduction and Exploitation Diversion Program. Details on the programs can be found here.

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The Pacific Centre Family Services Association Centre for Wellbeing, located on Goldstream Avenue in Colwood. Pacific Centre Family Services Association/Facebook

Munro says these programs have had great success, with thousands of youth being supported through them. In 2020, the YouthTalk program alone sent out 21,600 emails to youth who accessed the service.

But many programs have a waitlist. Munro says youth have to wait about four-to-six months to access some programs with the Pacific Centre Family Services Organization. To combat this, she says the organization is working on forming groups that youth can join while they wait to access programs.

Something else she suggests youth and those supporting youth do while they wait to access supports and services is simply talk to each other, even if talking feels difficult.

“Just say, ‘Yeah, things are feeling hard for me and I just wanted to let you know that,’” Munro says.

Munro recommends those looking for support find someone they feel comfortable talking to — whether that’s a friend, a family member, someone at school or someone on the other end of a help line.

“Even if they don’t want to go into all the details, just making bridges that way can make a really big difference and show people they aren’t alone,” Munro says.

To those on the receiving end, Munro suggests just listening and validating the experiences of the person that’s talking to them.

“I think listeners need to know they don’t need to fix things,” Munro says. “I think what we all need most is to be heard.”

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Vanessa White, the Sooke School District principal of Safe and Healthy Schools, suggests youth exercise and spend time outside to help take care of their mental health. Photo courtesy of the Sooke School District

Vanessa White, the Sooke School District principal of Safe and Healthy Schools, also recommends that parents make sure the youth in their lives are getting basic things like enough sleep, time outside in the fresh air, exercise and healthy meals.

“I know this sounds really mundane, but sleep, exercise and nutrition are probably the three biggest foundational pieces you can do for your own mental health,” White says. “It’s where we need to start.”

When it comes to students, White says the school district is working to teach students that how they’re feeling normal — especially during a global pandemic. Students are learning how to cope with mental health struggles they’re facing and are learning how to be resilient.

West Shore schools tackle youth mental health

SD62 circulates a monthly newsletter called Healthy Schools Healthy People. It’s a collection of articles, strategies and resources that are evidence-based and offer family-friendly tips related to health and wellbeing, White says. 

Students in SD62 also have access to a school counselling team, White says, with counsellors who are well-versed in social and emotional learning and mental health support. They work with students and also determine when and if it’s necessary to bring in resources from the community.

A program White says the district is in the middle of rolling out is the mental health literacy program. It’s focused on late-middle school to Grade 12 students. The program’s curriculum is based on understanding the difference between mental illness and mental distress and understanding when it’s time to seek outside help, like a doctor. It also teaches students to manage their mental health in a way that is preventative.

“It’s a fabulous program,” White says. “It’s been piloted in several districts around the province and it has evidence-based research behind it that shows students who take the program end up with better knowledge, decrease stigma and have a better capacity to access resources.”

White says quite a few teachers have already been trained in the program and the school district is in the midst of training more. 

“Our hope is that eventually every student in our district will get a chance to go through the program before they graduate,” White says.

SD62 also uses a program called EASE (everyday anxiety strategies for educators). It is for students in kindergarten through Grade 7 and teaches basic techniques like breathing, strategies to prevent anxiety from overtaking you and what a stress response looks like. The program was developed in 2019 by the Ministry of Children and Family Development in collaboration with Anxiety Canada.

White says all of the school counsellors in Sooke School District elementary and middle schools have been asked to take the program. She says the district will be working to offer the program to classroom teachers as well.

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The Sooke School District, as part of its Safe and Healthy Schools program, has distributed this poster for youth with a link and QR code to mental health services that they can access. Photo courtesy of Vanessa White, Sooke School District

What’s next for mental health supports in West Shore schools?

At a board level, the Sooke School District recently moved to reaffirm its support to work with community partners, municipalities and the provincial government to increase services and programs to support child and youth wellbeing and mental wellness. SD62 trustee Wendy Hobbs put forward the motion at the Jan. 26 board meeting. 

In an interview with The Discourse, Hobbs says that from her personal experience as a mother living on the West Shore, she believes it takes a community to raise a child — and that goes for supporting mental wellbeing, too. As the West Shore continues to grow, she says she thinks the number of services available to residents needs to be considered as well.

“I just feel that when you are building your community, it’s not just all about housing. You have to make sure that the infrastructure is there to provide the mental health or physical health of the residents that you’re bringing into our community,” Hobbs says.

Schools are where children and youth spend a lot of their time, Hobbs says, so what better place is there for them to access help if they need it? The idea of partnering with the community and organizations is a holistic way of approaching the issue, and one Hobbs says can further improve the work the Sooke School District is already doing. [end]

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