By Owen Charters
Yesterday and today, and likely for weeks to come, the world will be glued to media as we watch Russia’s devastating invasion of the Ukraine. It is frightening to watch the largest military operation in Europe since the Second World War; a cowardly attack on a sovereign, democratic nation.
This comes on the heels of an existing pandemic, anxiety about inflation, the ‘Freedom Convoy’ and blockades, and more. No wonder the discussions and concerns about mental health are paramount.
Recently, the members of NACY (National Alliance for Children and Youth—the umbrella advocacy organization for child and youth-serving organizations) met with the Honourable Marci Ien, federal Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth. It was Pink Shirt Day and the Minister had tweeted earlier that day some of the horrifically mean tweets she has received as a politician.
This is the atmosphere that is leading to the mental health challenges we’re seeing across the population. And it’s not okay.
It was not a surprise, then, when the Minister asked our organizations about youth mental health, clearly wanting to align the federal mandate of addressing mental health with our work and our concerns. In fact, the government now has a Minister of Mental Health & Addictions, the Honourable Carolyn Bennett, who I met with in December.
Our Clubs are also urgently reporting on the growing concerns of mental health deterioration—not only in the children and youth they serve, but in their staff teams as well.
But here’s the thing—mental health is an indicator of other problems. Yes, mental health must be addressed on its own, but it is also driven by the pressures that Club kids are facing each and every day. The glaringly obvious—poverty, hunger—and the insidious—racism, xenophobia, a divided and angered society.
Crime is another symptom of these problems. The shooting death of a teenager inside his high school in Scarborough has resulted in a 14-year-old charged with an ‘execution’ style attack. This is horrific. If you have followed the news over the past year, youth crime and violence and gang violence have all been growing in major centres across Canada.
Crime and mental health. The message we stressed to the Minister was that both are symptoms of something bigger. That addressing them—and only them—will not fix the problem. I pleaded that we do not pour endless resources into law enforcement—what we need is preventative investments. That while we invest in mental health support, we also need to invest in youth engagement that stops the cycle of crime and mental health issues.
We need to fight against a climate where politicians think it’s ok, that it’s right to criminalize the help and support that transgender children need. Or that children shouldn’t know about sexuality and 2S & LGBTQIA+ issues. These are both U.S. examples, but the climate of repression, division, intolerance, and bigotry is virulent and contagious—and we are not immune in Canada.
War, pandemic, racism, discrimination. It is no wonder that mental health is of significant concern. We must address the mental health crisis, but we must also address the underlying, root causes. We must push back to create an open, caring, tolerant society. A society where youth can grow and flourish, not build a shell of scars to harden themselves against a mean, cold world. The latter leads to more crime, to more calls for mental health investments, to more problems. We must push back against demagogues, against repression.
Investing in our youth will create the society we want. Creating pathways of opportunity. Fostering connections. Developing resilience. Providing hope. That’s the message we will continue to deliver to the federal government, to politicians and decision-makers, to anyone that will listen.
And that’s the message and the mission we will take to our youth.