Jack.org UofT Impact Summit: Challenging the Stigma

I had the incredible opportunity of attending the Jack.org UofT Impact Summit in March. The Regional Jack Summit was organized by the Jack.org Chapter of the UofT St-George campus. Our entire Jack.org UofT Mississauga executive team attended the regional summit in downtown Toronto and learned immensely about the barriers many face when it comes to dealing with the stigma surrounding mental illness. We also learned a lot about mental illness itself. Furthermore, we had the chance to connect with leaders from schools across Ontario.

The event began with a lecture by Dr. Andrea Levinson, Psychiatrist in Chief of Health and Wellness at the University of Toronto.  She addressed the issues associated with mental illness that we face today and also discussed the onset of mental illness in youth. We learned that between 50% and 70% of mental illnesses show up in individuals before the age of 18. This explains why mental illness is so common in youth. This is indeed shocking. Above all, this finding demonstrates that we should fight for change in order to end the stigma people face when dealing with their mental health condition. Jack.org is an organization that is committed to educating individuals about mental health and mental illness and ending the stigma.

We then were separated into mental health workshops. This gave us all a chance to learn about mental health in various ways. I decided to attend the mindfulness workshop and performed exercises to help me de-stress. There was an interesting exercise we performed which involved a partner and, at the end of it, we all agreed that this exercise made us more mindful when it came to having conversations with others. We learned how to be fully present and how to listen carefully when the other person is talking to us. This workshop was immensely beneficial, as knowing how to actually listen in a conversation is a crucial tool we must use when supporting others. We also did a meditation session which truly taught us how to silence our thoughts and to be, once again, present in the moment. After the workshops, we had lunch. After lunch, we listened to other incredible speakers talk about their stories. We then were put into groups to discuss how we would make a change in our communities when dealing with a specific mental health concern. We then, group by group, explained to everyone our proposed solution for dealing with this concern. This marked the end of the Regional Summit.

We gained an immense knowledge of mental health and mental illness, and we are beyond excited to put this knowledge into practice in our schools and communities. Mental health is NORMAL and so is mental illness. Mental health is just as important as physical health. This is what we must continue to emphasize in our society in order to truly change the perception many people have of mental health and mental illness.

I had the immense honor of interviewing the founder of Jack.org, Eric Windeler. Here is what he had to say!

Mental health is a subject matter which has become increasingly discussed around the world. What do you think the future will look like in 10 years from now in terms of mental health stigma? Are we close to ceasing the stigma? Do we have a long way ahead of us in doing so? What more do you think we should do apart from what we are doing now?

You’re right, mental health stigma is being talked about more and more everyday, which is remarkable. To me, stigma is a term that’s being used a lot, but we don’t necessarily always understand what it actually means. All stigma means is that, as a community, we aren’t properly educated about mental health. Stigma is a symptom of this lack of mental health education and literacy. This lack of education leads to misunderstanding, judgement, fear and discrimination. All of which lead to silence. So, much like we’d ask each other how we’re doing generally, people need to also check in on their own and each other’s mental health. We all need to be able to identify if ourselves or our family, friends or peers are struggling. Also, we all need to know how to talk about our mental health and seek help or encourage those in our lives to do the same if it’s needed. For that to happen, we need to create spaces and resources so people can be educated and educate themselves and encourage each other to do the same. If we’re all educated, stigma is reduced and we can all better understand and be there for one another.

I’m optimistic about the future for two reasons. First, through our work at Jack.org I see progress every single day. Now more than ever before, conversations about mental health exists at the local and national level. In fact, we’re now noticing that it isn’t enough to ask people to start conversations about mental health, people want to know specifics about what these conversations should look like and how they can be most supportive for their peers. Further, while we’re making significant progress, we’re always adapting to meet new demands and fill knowledge gaps that continue to be highlighted. Second, I am especially optimistic because of the work I see young people doing everyday with Jack.org. They’re supremely talented, creative, courageous, insightful and motivated. Our young leaders are contributing to mental health change across the country. They’re leading a mental health revolution. Moving forward, we must seek and continue to create opportunities for education and change. Some of these opportunities will be traditional, others not as much. So together, we need to continue to innovate, nurture out-of-the-box ideas, and support one another in these efforts. We’ve come a long way and the conversation, as well as education, is spreading. We are, however, just getting started and we are not yet satisfied with where our current level of education surrounding mental health is at. Nor are we satisfied with where the level and availability of support for young people across Canada is currently at. There remains a lot of work to do.

What advice do you have for individuals who are beginning their mental health advocacy journey?

While this advice may be valuable for all advocates, it may be particularly useful for young advocates, the community that I’ve learned so much from. Optimism and engagement are two of the most important characteristics for success in advocacy.

Optimism is supremely important, because it’s so easy to become cynical and pessimistic. Government policy may not reflect your needs, or it may feel like you don’t have the assets (financial or otherwise) to address the challenges you see in your community. Or you may not be given a seat at the table because people feel that you are too young. But this hasn’t stopped generations of young people before you, and it will not stop this generation of young leaders. Don’t give up, push back, demand a seat at a table. Be persistent because real and sustainable change takes time. We need to be impatient, but also realistic that wins can come fast at times but change is usually slow, advocacy can be a grind but we have to keep pushing, in a positive, optimistic way.

Following from this, effectively engaging with others (other youth, adult allies, civil and political institutions) is vital if you want to bring about change. The more diverse the network you engage with, the more likely you are to have insights that reflect your whole community and ones that will lead to real, equitable and sustainable change. Don’t ever miss a chance for engaging others and gaining their perspective.

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I thoroughly enjoyed the Jack.org UofT Impact Summit and I strongly encourage students to join Jack.org to make a lasting positive impact in the lives of others.

Our voices. Our movement.