Empowering Canada’s youth to become leaders in mental health

Editor’s Note: We’re profiling organizations and individuals who have benefited from the support of the Medavie Foundation. This includes Jack.org, dedicated to educating and training young people to revolutionize mental health.

Lisa began experiencing mental health issues when she was just 10 years old. Even at that age, she knew mental health wasn’t something talked about within her family. Instead, she did what many sufferers of mental illness do and suffered in silence. After eight years of experiencing as many as five or six anxiety attacks a day and occasionally sleeping in a city park because she was too scared and ashamed to go home, Lisa finally got the help she needed through hospitalization and therapy. Just as important to her healing, she found a place where she and others could share their experiences and help other youth in a community organization called Jack.org.

Starting conversations

The initial motivation for Jack.org is in its name. Jack Windeler was 18 years old when he died by suicide. Not wanting other young people to suffer in silence, Eric Windeler and Sandra Hanington started a memorial fund at Kids Help Phone. Today, Jack.org has evolved to train and empower young leaders in every province and territory to start important conversations around mental health. Powered by tens of thousands of advocates and allies across every province and territory of Canada, its goal is nothing less than a country in which all young people understand how to take care of their own mental health and look out for each other.

Accessing resources

“Back in 2011, when we started our first significant pilot program, it became clear young people were not being effectively educated on the topic of mental health, and that stigma was a major factor in both seeking and offering help,” explains Eric Windeler, Founder & Executive Director at Jack.org. “Suicide was, and still is, the leading health-related cause of death for young people in Canada. Further, it’s unacceptable that young people didn’t have access to engaging education or resources that taught them how to find support, take care of themselves, or look out for each other.”

Dismantling barriers

Since that time, Jack.org’s network of young leaders and staff has worked hard to identify and dismantle barriers to positive mental health in communities across Canada. Over the last decade, they have seen a significant increase in mental health education and a marked decrease in shame about speaking out about mental health struggles. Unfortunately, mental health services have not developed at the same pace. That gap has left many young people still unable to access timely, affordable, or accessible mental health supports. It’s an issue Jack.org’s youth leaders, supported by their staff, are continually working to overcome by connecting young people to mental health education, resources and supports in their communities.

Getting inspired

In Lisa’s case, Jack.org and its compassionate team of young volunteers have proven invaluable to her mental health. The first-generation Canadian, who lives in Manitoba, learned about the organization through a friend, who had positive experiences with Jack.org. Not only was Lisa inspired by what she learned, she became motivated to join the organization and help others.

Offering strategies
“Talking to therapists led me to understand I had been dealing with a lot my entire life and had no healthy outlets or strategies to make myself feel better,” Lisa explains. “The extreme shame and negativity I had held onto for years had played a major role in the darkest periods of my life. When I needed help, I didn’t know who to turn to or even where to start looking. Jack.org has helped me learn more about mental health, has connected me with strategies to use when my mental health needs to be improved, and has given me a safe space to tell my story.”

Pivoting in pandemic times

While awareness of mental health and its impact on many Canadians has been increasing, it has truly come to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic. Jack.org quickly recognized that its work would be needed now more than ever. However, most of its core work, and major fundraising events, were usually done in person, through Jack Talks, Jack Chapters, and Jack Summits. Thanks to partners like Medavie Foundation Jack.org has been able to pivot to online programming and rapidly expand its digital education capabilities to support young people with the knowledge and resources they need to take care of themselves and look out for one another during this difficult time.

Shifting online

“When the pandemic hit, we quickly shifted our in-person programming online,” says Eric. “Our team pulled together an incredible seven-day long Virtual Jack Summit Experience for mental health advocates across the country in May. We’ve also developed three editions of a Virtual Jack Talk and co-developed a COVID-19 Youth Mental Health Resource Hub with Kids Help Phone and School Mental Health Ontario. We have also been leaning into our award-winning Be There resource to enrich the content and reach more young people. We know first-hand how difficult these times are and we want to ensure we continue to meet the needs of Canada’s youth when they need us most.”

Sharing her story
For Lisa, Jack.org’s support and being able to share her story have inspired her to study social work and psychology at the University of Manitoba. She hopes to use her degree to help people and make our country a safer, more inclusive place. While she realizes there is a lot of work to be done to reach that goal, she’s optimistic about the future.

Taking small steps
“Small steps are great steps,” Lisa explains. “When struggling with mental health it is so easy to become overwhelmed. Overcoming my own stigma is something I still work on today. I try not to have huge expectations for myself and instead focus on treating myself the way I treat my friends: with kindness, compassion, patience, and love. If I can do it for them, then why shouldn't I do it for me?”

Be There for someone you know.

Do you know someone who might be struggling with their mental health? Learn to be there for them at Jack.org’s game-changing resource BeThere.org.

Please note: these photos were taken before COVID-19 and the implementation of health guidelines we are now following.

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