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To effectively reach youth, put their voices at the forefront

Founder & executive director of Jack.org

Many organizations spend significant time and resources researching how best to reach the youth market – what approach, language, music, imagery will resonate best? It might seem simple, but from my experience, if you really want to effectively reach Canada's youth, you need to put their voice at the forefront of the conversation.

In 2010, my wife Sandra Hanington and I started the national youth mental-health charity Jack.org after we unexpectedly lost our eldest son Jack to suicide. Along with our overwhelming grief, we had a burning desire to have something good come from our loss. We quickly understood that we had to help change the way young people think and talk about mental health, as well as work to fundamentally shift the youth mental-health landscape. After two years of talking "at" youth and doing work "for" them, we had our light-bulb moment.

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What if our focus shifted to empowering youth themselves to revolutionize mental health? I don't just mean better involving them in the discussion; I mean letting them lead this work in every way imaginable. Mental health is a topic that affects young people every day in every community across Canada – often with devastating impact. So who better to understand how to lead a change for a generation of youth, than the thousands of passionate young leaders among them.

Fast-forward to today. Jack.org works to support the advocacy work of more than 2,500 young leaders at 150 high schools, colleges and universities in every province and territory of Canada. And we're just getting started. Below are five lessons that our experience has taught us about building leadership capacity among these amazing young people.

Listen, listen, listen

For far too long young people have been tokenized when it comes to giving them a voice in important matters that affect them. At Jack.org we have learned how to organize all kinds of settings (virtual and in person) that allow for continual listening to take place that shapes our work. This acknowledges and supports youth perspectives and leverages their ideas, creating meaningful engagement and action.

Exchange knowledge

Young people are the true experts in their own realities and the change most needed for them. To effectively make this change though, they often require additional training to round out their expertise. Things such as mental-health basics and an understanding of the gaps in our health system are essential concepts that don't come to anyone naturally. To fortify youth knowledge, we build comprehensive, two-way training programs. We bolster youth knowledge of essential concepts, while also ensuring we always bring their ideas and perspectives to the forefront.

Build skills

Did you get six weeks of public speaking training when you were 19 years old? This is just one example of skill development we employ to support our young leaders. These skills not only help with their immediate mental-health advocacy work, but will also be invaluable as they move through their education and into the workplace and various community settings.

Apply best practices

This is critical and ensures we don't set up our young leaders for failure. Follow the evidence, especially when it comes to safety in the mental health space. There are brilliant leaders all over the world learning how to effectively create safer communities for mental health. Our training processes, our resources and the youth work we support are consistently guided by this evidence. Staying nimble, informed and open to new learning is essential to supporting effective and safe work.

Infuse creativity

Being creative is something that younger generations are simply better at. Don't feel obligated to take any traditional approaches. The energy that comes from the creativity that our young leaders provide is how we bring this conversation from the one in five who are directly affected to the five in five (all of us) who need to understand the importance of the mental-health movement and be part of it. Simply put, effective advocacy requires the boldness and creativity that our young leaders embody.

Jack.org is a Canadian charity training a network of young leaders to recognize if they or their peers are struggling with their mental health, and to help ensure each of them gets the help they deserve. At Jack Summit 2018, March 2-4 at MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, they are learning how mental health looks different across the country.

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Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.

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