May 7 is National Child & Youth Mental Health Day, which highlights the need to support younger members of our community and foster their mental health. In honour of National Child & Youth Mental Health Day, we’re highlighting one of the programs that supports the mental health of youth in our community.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Jyssika Russell knew it would hit queer youth particularly hard.
Jyssika – the coordinator and co-founder of Speqtrum, a youth-founded community building program for Two Spirit LGBTQIA+ young people in Hamilton supported by YWCA Hamilton – knew their team had to find a way to continue their programs after Speqtrum’s in-person programming was cancelled in early 2020 due to Covid-19.
“We were immediately concerned about youth, and youth being home in unsupported households, and not having the resources they usually would,” says Jyssika. “So we just said, ‘Let’s do some peer support online.’”
That marked the beginning of Speqtrum’s weekly Check-In program, which offers online support to queer youth in the community. Each week, the Speqtrum team uses traditional social media platforms to individually connect with roughly 30 youth. The goal of the check-ins is to chat, listen, help problem-solve any issues the youth are experiencing, provide peer and emotional support, and help connect them with other resources in the community.
For Jyssika, it’s important for the program to focus on Speqtrum staff reaching out to youth, not the other way around.
“One thing we know about working with youth is that reaching out is the hard part,” they say, adding that using traditional social media also removes a barrier to participate as it meets youth where they’re already at.
One of the key parts of the program is that it allows the Speqtrum team to intervene early to help connect youth with appropriate supports. If something comes up in the chat – a problem with a landlord, or an issue with family or friends – Speqtrum staff can provide resources and connections that will help. This early intervention is especially important during the pandemic, when many mental health services have been shuttered and others have lengthy waitlists.
The pandemic has presented particular challenges to queer youth, Jyssika says. Some youth are facing difficult situations at home, whether from parents, roommates, or siblings, who don’t know about or aren’t supportive of their Two Spirit LGBTQIA+ identity.
“Going out isn’t safe, but staying in isn’t safe or restorative either,” says Jyssika.
Other students may be facing difficult situations during virtual school, including being outed by their classmates or being bullied online. And, Jyssika says, many youth are experiencing these situations in isolation, without being able to connect with members of their community.
“Mental health is something we think about a lot in our community. When the pandemic hit, we thought, ‘How do we make sure we don’t lose someone?’ And we haven’t – but it happens in our community,” says Jyssika.
“All of these things – isolation, unsupportive housing – are contributors to poor mental health, and people feeling like they don’t have any options.” For more information or to donate to Speqtrum, please visit https://www.speqtrum.ca/