Making it easier to ask for help from youth-serving agencies

When youth need help, youth-serving agencies, therapists, and other service providers may unintentionally cause barriers. The CMHA branch in Simcoe County wanted to break down these barriers and to help local agencies be more youth-friendly, as part of its Mental Health Awareness Stigma Combating Strategy. The ultimate goal: make it easier for youth to ask for help.

Young people’s past experiences of asking for help from youth services and their solutions were the starting place for this initiative. Youth involved with a drop-in shelter, alternative school, the library teen advisory board, and clients of CMHA Simcoe Branch explored their experiences of asking for help, the stigma and discrimination they encountered at youth services, as well as their ideas about how youth services can reduce stigma and be more youth-friendly.

Two important themes emerged from the youth’s experiences. First, the youth wanted to be seen as more than their problem: for example, they didn’t want to be surrounded in waiting rooms by things that remind them of their problems but rather wanted “normal things” like magazines. Second, the youth wanted to have real and genuine connections with service providers, and were frustrated that they are continually asked by service providers to share their life experiences while therapists and service providers won’t share their own stories.

The youth have since created tools to help the agencies and people who want to help youth reflect on how their practices create barriers to connecting with and supporting young people. The youth made masks about their experiences asking for help and used their artwork and personal stories to create a presentation that brought their voices to therapists and service providers. They also created a clinical reflection tool called that Reverse Questionnaire that challenges people who work with youth to rethink what they’ve been taught in terms of self-disclosure in relation to what youth want in their help seeking experiences. The Reverse Questionnaire includes six questions that youth would like to ask their therapists and service providers. The tool challenges adults to assess themselves as a worker and to discover their own comfort with disclosure.

The project is inspiring change. The alternative school has created a credit-based arts course that provides opportunities for more youth to explore and challenge stigma in their lives. As a result of the youths’ stories, CMHA Simcoe Branch has changed the ways it provides services; for example, youth don’t have to tell the story of their problem over and over as part of the intake process.

The youth’s work will continue to inspire change among service providers through a manual. The manual will help service providers appreciate the struggles youth experience in regards to stigma and mental health. It will also provide tips on how to initiate a similar process in their own organization, including how to facilitate the mask project and use the reverse questionnaire for clinical reflection.

Learn more about the agencies involved in this project: Youth Haven, Barrie Public Library Teen Advisory Board (TAB) Group, and CMHA Simcoe Branch. To find out more about Mental Health Awareness Stigma Combating Strategy manual contact CMHA Simcoe Branch.