When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, everyone quickly took stock of the toll it was going to take on millions of individual’s physical health. But what also became apparent in the early stages of the pandemic was the significant toll it was going to take on mental health as well.
Prior to the pandemic there was already increasing evidence that young people in Canada were struggling with their mental health much more than even 10 years ago. With funding from the Vancouver Police Foundation, the Vancouver Police Department Youth Services Section partnered with the Vancouver School Board and the Canadian Mental Health Association to address the need for increased mental health programming and launched a new in-school mental health and wellness initiative in 2017 called Here4Peers.
Here4Peers is a peer-based mental health awareness program for youth in which high school students are trained to visit grade seven classrooms to facilitate interactive workshops regarding a range of mental health topics. Here4Peers has trained more than 300 peer facilitators who have positively impacted thousands of their younger peers across Vancouver since the inception of the program.
“It’s important to connect youth with appropriate and important resources before mental health issues turn into more demanding concerns or mental illnesses,” explains Ashley Currie, Here4Peers Program Coordinator with the VPD.
By raising awareness, naming it, providing options and dialogue around strengthening mental health and protective factors, and pointing students toward trusted resources, Here4Peers operates where current systems cannot – before the onset of significant mental health issues.” – Ashley Currie, VPD
What is especially unique about Here4Peers is that these mental health conversations are being led by older peers, rather than adults or teachers. These older peers will also be familiar, trusting faces once the grade seven students transition into high school. For many students, Here4Peers is a safe point of entry into mental health and wellness topics.
A lot of the work Here4Peers is doing is around normalizing the regular fluctuations of mood, thoughts, and feelings. It teaches that it is ok and perfectly normal if you’re not happy 100% of the time. Social media has created a false reality where images and people seem joyful and perfect 24/7 and today’s youth are feeling inadequate when they don’t live up to these unrealistic standards of emotion and livelihood.
“This is a generation of young people who are leaders of social media and being parented by adults who don’t fully understand or necessarily have a grasp on social media,” says Ashley. “There are no mentors for this social media generation and unfortunately it’s having a negative effect on young people’s mental health.”
While there are many factors, not just social media, that have contributed to an increase in mental health challenges in kids and youth, there is one in particular factor that has recently made it even more challenging for today’s young people. According to Foundry BC, calls for service access of online counselling has increased by 300% since the onset of the pandemic. As a result, Here4Peers had to quickly adapt to the changing landscape of youth mental health.
We have had some incredible youth take on consulting roles since the pandemic began,” says Ashley. “A Virtual Steering Committee was formed, and current and former youth facilitators combed through all of our workshop content, tested all the activities virtually, and decided what would be amenable to a virtual platform. We have also produced a video ‘Let’s Talk Mental Health for Kids and Teens’ which covers our core workshop content in a compelling, inclusive, and youth-friendly way.”
Here4Peers now has approximately 80 trained youth facilitators in the new virtual platform where they “visit” grade seven classrooms via Microsoft Teams to deliver the Here4Peers workshop and collaborate with the classroom teacher.
“We want to set young people up for as much success as possible as they navigate all of the challenges and stresses that life brings, and to know how to access mental health support without shame if needed,” says Ashley.
On May 3, the Vancouver Police Foundation and the Vancouver Police Department were honoured to be recognized by the Canadian Mental Health Association for our support of Here4Peers and our ongoing commitment to raise awareness for mental health and reduce the stigma of mental illness.
Thank you to Ashley Currie, Constable Jolyn Mayes, Kim Wong, the Vancouver Police Department, the Vancouver School Board and the Canadian Mental Health Association Vancouver-Fraser for your dedication to such an impactful program for the youth of Vancouver.
You can make a donation to help ensure critical mental health programs like this can continue.