Written by Vanessa Perri on 12.05.18

With Canadian Mental Health Week taking place this week (May 7th to May 13th), we decided to open the conversation about an exceptional network of young leaders that is changing the way we think about mental health. Jack.org is the only national network of young leaders transforming the way we think and talk about mental health through initiatives and programs designed with the input of young Canadians. These young leaders are guiding the process. One of the most powerful ways they are affecting change is by talking. Jack.org has 95 trained speakers who will deliver 250 talks by the end of the 2017/2018 school year. These talks directly reach 45,000 Canadian students and then the message is amplified throughout schools and communities. 1 in 5 young Canadians are affected by mental illness, but 75% of them will not receive the help they need. Jack.org’s trained speakers are on a mission to change that.

There are currently 43 universities, 16 colleges, and 90 high schools, across Canada, that each have their own Jack Chapters. Each Chapter is made up of student leaders whose goal is to reach students who may be uncomfortable with the subject of mental health and bring them into the conversation to challenge any negative perceptions.

We had the chance to talk to a fourth year Neuroscience student at Concordia University and Jack Talks speaker by the name of Maya Okindo. Looking for a way to help her community and raise awareness about mental health, Okindo originally joined Jack.org during her second year of university as a volunteer. She then joined the executive team and became a Jack Talks speaker during the summer of 2017. She is currently paving the way for conversation about mental health and erasing the stigma around mental illness through her local Chapter, Jack.org Concordia.

Jack.org - Statistics

How are you fighting stigma and spreading the message that we all have mental health?

I’ll speak on behalf of my local Chapter, which is Jack.org Concordia. We host a lot of events that help students with what would be considered the most stressful times and when mental health can be the most affected. In our Chapter, we create stress kits for students during midterms and finals. They’ll just be little things, such as a balloon with rice [that acts as a stress ball] or a packet of tea and a colouring sheet. They’re very small things but they’re meant to remind students to take breaks because although exams are important, being able to make it through exams is very important as well.We also tell them what Jack.org is and let them know that we’re here for them. We let them know that we do work with the counselling and psychological services at our school and what services are available to them. That’s kind of what we do at our school—spread the word and host events.

Why is contact-based education and peer-to-peer outreach working?

I think that with mental health, since it’s such a sensitive topic, you first have to start a conversation with people and that’s what we focus on at Jack.org. Even though people may need more professional help, the first step is to start that conversation. So by us doing our Jack Talks, having our regional summit, going into the communities, and meeting with young people, it’s a more personal outreach. Also, it’s young students that are talking to them; not adults who might say, “Oh it’s okay, everybody goes through this in life. You’ll be fine.” No. It’s students that are actually in the same age range that you can talk to. Our talks are also interactive; any event we do is interactive.

Starting that way is easier because oftentimes, people don’t how to help someone who needs it.  When I had my struggles with mental health in high school, my mom was the one who opened up that conversation with me. She helped me get the help that I needed. But not everyone is close to their parents in that way. Your peers are the people you spend the most time with, so it’s maybe easier for them to understand what you’re going through. That’s why we focus on the peer-to-peer aspect.

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What are some tips you can give on how to look out for one another?

I think the biggest thing is when you’re with your friends and you spend so much time with them, and you notice a change in behaviour, for example, they’re not as talkative or they’re not coming out with you as much—just being aware of that is important. Sometimes, people might be showing subtle signs that they’re not okay, but they still might be like, “Oh yeah, I’m fine.” You can just open up the conversation and say something like, “Hey, I noticed that you seem a little bit different lately. I just want to check up on you to see if you’re well.” And even if they say that they’re okay, you can always let them know that you’re there for them if ever they need to talk about anything. In our talks, we also talk about self-care and that’s different for every single person. It gives you the chance to have those mental breaks and ask yourself, “Am I okay? Am I not okay? What can I do to help myself?” Self-care and reaching out to those that you are close to are some tips.

What professionally developed curriculum do you deliver that helps audiences understand mental health? Provide some examples if you can. 

With my Chapter, about a year and a half ago, we connected with the services at our school. We partnered up with Concordia’s counselling and psychological services and whenever they had booths for certain times, such as exam time to help students, we were there too. Because most of the time, people feel apprehensive about going and speaking to a psychologist and they don’t want to be seen going to the mental health booth. But if you have students coming up to you saying, “Hey, we’re part of Jack.org. If you want to do a mental health check or if you just want to talk to us or to a professional, you can.” It kind of breaks that barrier. We were told by the counselling services that the turnout was better when there was more student outreach because it was less intimidating.

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How do you inspire others to keep the conversation going?

The best way, in my opinion, to keep the conversation going is to be open and willing to have those conversations. In my case, I made myself very open. One example I can think of is one time, we saw a woman on the street and someone said that she was “crazy.” I really hate hearing the word crazy because we don’t know what that woman is going through, we don’t know if she is suffering from a mental illness—and from her behaviour, she could potentially be suffering from a mental illness so I really want toto discourage the use of the word “crazy.” So I would have a conversation with the person and say, “Hey, you really shouldn’t use those kinds of words. Just because someone is suffering from mental illness, doesn’t mean they’re crazy.” That creates a lot of the negative stigma around mental illness and that’s why a lot of people don’t want to talk about it.The idea of being inspiring to someone is a huge responsibility. I believe you can inspire people through your own actions.

Depending on what one is struggling with—for example, depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, stress—how can that person get help?

For people that are not affiliated with a university or a post-secondary school, there’s immediate help, which is a hotline. There’s the suicide hotline number (Suicide Action Montrealthat you can call. It offers help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for those at risk. They can be reached at 514 723-4000 by Montreal residents, while those outside the city should call 1-866-APPELLE (277-3553). There is also the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is available at all times throughout Canada and the United States by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) as well as Kids Help Phone (Jeunesse, J’écoute), which is available for all youth, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to help with all problems that children can encounter, including suicidal thoughts. They can be reached at 1-800-668-6868If you are in an immediate crisis, then call 9-1-1 or go to the hospital. I think some people think that they can handle it on their own and they don’t know at which point they need professional help. If you’re at a point where your life is being disrupted and you can no longer function, it’s important to seek professional help.

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How can a Jack Talk be booked in order to get the conversation started?

To book a Jack Talk, you can go on Jack.org and in the “Talks” section, you can book a talk. Actually, for the month of May, they’re doing free talks at secondary and post-secondary schools, or if it’s just for an event, the promotion is valid as long as the person or organization books before May 11th. It’s a really cool opportunity because usually the people organizing the event have to pay for the talk, so for Mental Health Awareness Week, they wanted to make it accessible to everyone.

Why is it important for your own mental health to get involved?

Based on my own personal experiences, when you are struggling with mental health, a lot of the times you forget about the things that you are passionate about or the things that you’re good at within your life. So having activities or hobbies and doing things outside of school contributes to my mental health because it contributes to my self-esteem; it helps me stay active and lets me feel like I’m still doing things. A lot of times, people suffering with mental health issues or mental illness stop doing the things they love. They become too stressed with what they’re dealing with. For example, I do boxing and it’s one of those things where when I’m having a bad mental health day and I don’t want to go, I force myself to go and I end up feeling better. Having any kind of hobby or activity helps with your mental health.

Jack.org - Maya Okindo

Do you enjoy being a Jack Talks speaker?

Yes! It’s interesting because I got certified last summer and I did the Jack Talks program—which is actually open to anyone, not just people who are involved with Jack.org’s Chapters. My first initial fear was public speaking because the idea of having to go in front of high school students—young people can be a tough crowd—to talk about something that is so important to me, that I’m so invested in, can be kind of intimidating. But the thing I loved about the program is that they’re really there to support you and it actually made me gain confidence. So being a Jack Talks speaker has not just helped me in giving talks but just overall in my life. It’s also given me the opportunity to do more things within the organization.

Maya Okindo is expected to graduate from Concordia’s Neuroscience program later this year. Before continuing onto her graduate studies in the field of public health, she plans on taking some time off to work with non-profit organizations associated with mental health. Being a part of Jack.org has taught Okindo that when it comes to mental health, there are many ways it can be approached.

For more information about Jack.org and how you can book a Jack Talk to keep the conversation going, check out their website.    

Photos courtesy of Jack.org and Maya Okindo.

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