No More Silence on Youth Mental Health
Eric Windeler founded the national network Jack.org as a legacy to his son who died tragically by suicide in March of 2010. Jack’s death was an unexpected shock as he was a promising first year student at Queen’s University. The outpouring of support from friends and the family led them to request that donations be made to the Kids Help Line in Jack’s memory. This overwhelming show of support also inspired the founding of the Jack Project. That same year, Windeler, his wife Sandra Harrington, and their closest friends started the organization as a way to reach youth struggling with mental health. Business interests were put aside so that Eric could devote his energy and time to leading the organization. His goal is to inspire more discussion about mental health, primarily among youth and as a consequence to reduce the isolation, shame, and suffering of young people struggling with mental illness.
At Jack.org the vision statement is “No More Silence” on the subject of youth and mental health. Their primary goal is to see a reduction in youth suicide and an increase in wellbeing in Canada’s young people. In the fall of 2012 the Jack Project moved onto the campus of Queen’s University. They began to work with student leaders to develop youth inspired and directed initiatives to tackle the stigma associated with mental illness. Improving the general mental health of students on campus was the objective. Out of this initiative Canada’s first ever student- led youth mental health summit was born. They named it “Unleash the Noise.” After that, events moved quickly. In July of 2013, the Jack Project became an independent entity, and in August it became Jack.org. By October of the same year, it was incorporated as a registered Canadian Charity.
Traditional methods of tackling mental health issues in Canada have rarely reached the greater population. For the present generation of young people who grew up on the internet, social media, and text messaging, the traditional approach to mental health awareness wasn’t working. Programs created by Jack.org are designed to reach all youth and to encourage and enable them to care for their own mental health and that of their peers. The aim is to shatter the stigma of mental illness and create long term change in societal attitudes. Jack.org trains young speakers to visit schools and work to transform the way students perceive mental illness. These young leaders also share their own experiences and explain the building blocks to mental health. Students easily identify with these peer leaders who address the issues of mental health in a candid fashion without conveying the usual stigma and shame attached to these issues.
Through Jack.org programming, students learn that mental health is something we all share and need to take care of. Peer to peer engagement is a powerful force when applied in any educational setting. Through encounters with peer leaders, students feel more comfortable opening up about their own struggles and triumphs in the context of mental health. Once a year, 250 delegates gather in Toronto for Canada’s National Jack Summit. This year the keynote speakers were Ayishat Akanbi, Harrison Browne, Kelsey Darragh and Tunchai Redvers. Each shared their personal story of struggles with mental health, leadership, and their desire to be advocates for students. For the summit Jack.org has partnered with other organizations like Textbooks for Change, Get REAL, and Wear Your Label to create skill building workshops. These workshops provide delegates with the tools they require to transform their stories and ideas into relevant action. The educational resources empower these young leaders to be effective agents of positive change in their communities. Jack.org works tirelessly to connect students across Canada so they can be a resource to one another. At the end of each Jack Summit the delegates return to their communities inspired and equipped to make a difference.
Students had this to say about the summit. “This weekend was amazing. I met amazing people, and learned amazing things…” said Cameron Jette. “Thank you people of Jack Summit for changing my world forever, I hope we can all make a difference out there even if only for one person!” exclaimed Emerald May. Julia Caddy explained her experience at the summit in a way that would make Jack.org proud. “My personal experiences with depression, anxiety, and anorexia have led to mental health being a huge part of my life, and consequently I’ve developed an unmeasurable amount of passion towards mental health.”
One remarkable young woman, Maggie Harder, took on Amazon in a letter writing campaign for selling T-shirts that mocked suicide. Amazon pulled the product, and Maggie went on to attend the conference in Toronto promoting youth leadership on the subject of mental health issues. Apparently this is just the beginning of the Calgary teen’s activism. She intends to target the language used in our culture that demeans mental illness. She has seen first-hand how those suffering from mental illness are ridiculed or shunned. She intends to hone the skills that were apparent in her challenge to Amazon in order to win more supporters to the cause and improve public awareness. “It was my first endeavor, but not my last.”
Starting university signals a massive period of transition in the lives of many students. Leaving established support systems for the academic pressure and anonymity of a university campus can be overwhelming and stressful. Ideally a foundational awareness of mental health and how to care for one’s own has already been laid, but that is not always the case. After accidents, suicide is the leading cause of death in young people across Canada. By the age of 25, one in five young Canadians will have struggled significantly with mental illness. According to Jack.org, three quarters won’t receive the help they need to recover.
Dr. Nancy Low, a psychiatrist and clinical director of McGill’s Mental Health Service, confirms that demand for services by 2017 had increased by 35 percent since 2010. This demand translates into a longer wait times to access needed help, sometimes up to four months for individual psychotherapy. Low does not think it is good enough, even though it is a shorter wait time than in the general community. “The demand is there and we haven’t seen a commensurate increase in services; we are really trying to make efforts to address the demands that we are seeing.” Jack.org is active on McGill’s campus and Dr. Low believes it is very effective. That more mental health services are needed becomes clear, particularly for emotionally vulnerable youth before they go out into the workforce or attend university. Knowledge based skills need to be in place with the adults who interact with youth, both in school and at home, so that mental health issues can be spotted early and addressed. Jack.org is working to make mental health awareness a reality in communities across Canada. Finding skilled and competent help varies greatly from community to community.
Within schools and on campuses the goal of this energetic organization is to improve mental health literacy among the students and entire school staff. According to Jack.org mental health literacy is defined as:
- Understanding how to foster and maintain good mental health
- Understanding mental health disorders and their treatments
- Decreasing the stigma associated with mental illness
- Understanding how to seek help effectively
Jack.org has a substantial library of programs which are customizable to the needs of guidance counselors, teachers, and students. In addition, the organization has created their evolving Mental Health and High School Curriculum Guide. Their programs and resources are not only used in Canada, but also internationally, with success confirmed by researched evidence. Progress has been made across the world in understanding issues of mental health, illness, and how the brain functions. Canadian youth spend most of their waking hours at school and at home. Therefore school seems to be the logical place for our youth to learn about mental health issues and disorders.
Jack.org is constantly seeking ways to connect with teachers, guidance counselors, and school boards in order to pilot, test, and improve their programs. The organization has come to understand that the most challenging aspect for educators is how to select a safe, effective, and evidenced based program from the plethora of heavily marketed choices available. Jack has responded to this challenge by partnering with educators across Canada to develop a scientifically rigorous methodology in order to critically evaluate programs prior to purchase. This program is called “Critically Evaluating School Mental Health” or (CESMH) and is available to schools and other educational entities in order to assist them in their choice of available programs.
In the September of 2016, 19 student leaders representing Jack.org joined the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on a tall ship for a trip around the harbor at Victoria, BC. The purpose of this event was to discuss mental health and the challenges youth face seeking the help they need. It is hoped that the international spotlight on William and Kate will help to combat the stigma around mental health and bring attention to the subject. Mental health is an important issue for the royal couple as they are spearheading their own campaign with Prince Harry called Heads Together, which provides frontline support and works to combat the stigma for those seeking help in times of psychological distress. Like Jack.org, the Heads Together campaign aims to change the national conversation on mental wellbeing.
Eric Windeler continues to work tirelessly in all aspects of running the organization and his efforts extend to fundraising and partnership development with key mental health experts and organizations across Canada. Eric was honoured by Queens University in 2015 for his work in the field of mental health, receiving an honorary degree. Eric sits of the board of Partners for Mental Health, a charity. He is also actively involved with the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care Leadership Advisory Council for Ontario. Currently Jack.org operates 3 programs: Jack Summit (the national student mental health conference), Jack Talks (50 trained youth speakers) and Jack Chapters (85 student-led mental health clubs at high schools, colleges and universities across Canada). The legacy of his son’s life and tragic death is an abundance of hope and resources for youth across Canada, a legacy to be proud of.
By Alison Zenisek