Ask the expert: How Need2 Suicide Prevention, Education & Support is providing hope to Island youth

Need2 Suicide Prevention - Ask the Expert May 2020

This post is part of a blog series in which our CEO Veronica Carroll interviews experts across Vancouver Island and the surrounding islands on issues affecting children’s health.

Trigger warning: The post you are about to read mentions self-harm and suicide which may be triggering to some individuals.

Veronica recently connected with the Executive Director of one of our community partners, Justine Thomson of Need2 Suicide Prevention, Education & Support. They spoke about how this vital youth mental health organization is adapting its programming amidst COVID-19, how to encourage your teenagers to reach out for support, and how Need2 is providing families with hope during this challenging time.

How did Need2 Suicide Prevention, Education & Support come about?

Need2 started as a grassroots, student-led organization at the University of Victoria in 1970 by a group of concerned students who noticed a need for emotional and crisis support on campus. What began as a telephone crisis line quickly grew into a volunteer crisis support network operating 24-hours a day, seven days a week. Since then, we’ve helped hundreds of thousands of young people through their most critical times.

Can you tell us about your online mental health chat and text service, Youth Space, and what you’ve seen youth gain from participating in the program?

Youth Space is an online crisis chat and text platform that provides emotional support, crisis support, and suicide risk assessment for youth up to age 30, operating from 6 pm to midnight every night of the year. If our staff and volunteers recognize that a young person needs to be physically connected to support, we link them with mobile crisis response teams and emergency services across Canada.

Youth Space saves lives every single evening. From an intervention of someone who is considering taking their own life or engaging in self-harm, to connecting an individual with our crisis response team, there are so many ways that this program has an impact.

Need2 offers a significant number of school-based programs. Which of these have resonated most with students and how have school closures impacted this work?

Our Suicide Education & Awareness (SEA) program is a free classroom workshop designed to deliver mental health literacy and suicide prevention tools to grade eight students, high school students, and staff in Greater Victoria schools. The program has had a lasting impact on students.

As part of the workshop, students identify if they are struggling with their mental health through our informal self-disclosure form. All of those young people are bridged to a school counsellor and receive continuous mental health support through the school and high-risk mental health supports.

We’ve had stories where a young person has gone to the counsellor, has been referred to Island Health, and has had a stay at Ledger, for example. Many have returned to us later as a volunteer. Since the program began in 1997, we have supported thousands of young people who have been in severe distress, and sharing with us was the first time they spoke with anyone about their struggles.

Our Mindfulness for Middle School program has also strongly resonated with students and educators, which gently introduces the basics of mindfulness and meditation to students in grade six.  The program is designed to introduce mental health coping strategies in a digestible and developmentally-appropriate format.

We are currently in the process of moving all of our school-based programming to a digital platform and are determining the best strategy and format to reach the greatest number of young people.

In what other ways has Need2 had to adapt because of the COVID-19 pandemic?

We’ve had to pause our youth follow-up program, through which we reach out to young people who are in distress, but not at immediate risk, and have asked for an ongoing connection. Although we currently don’t have the bandwidth to run the program, we are hopeful that we can bring it back sometime in May.

On the positive side, we are happy that we’ve been able to continue to run Youth Space uninterrupted and retain each of our 17 staff members, all of whom are working remotely.

Volunteers make up a big part of the programs offered through Need2. How has COVID-19 impacted your volunteer recruitment?

Yes, they do. Youth Space is run by a group of more than 115 volunteers, all of whom are local youth who receive a minimum of 35 hours of crisis response training. They are supported by staff who all physically work together at Foundation House.

We normally run three Youth Space volunteer training groups each year in March, May, and September. We had almost wrapped up our March training group when COVID-19 social distancing measure were put into place, so we moved the remainder of our training online.

We’ve been heavily investing our time in supporting these new volunteers during these challenging times by matching them with experienced volunteers to shadow and helping them access our online systems to create a smooth onboarding process.

As a result, we have cancelled our May recruitment sessions as we don’t have the bandwidth to execute the training to full capacity. We do, however, plan to hold the September training as scheduled. Fortunately, we haven’t had a problem attracting volunteers over recent years and hope this continues.

How can parents support their children and teenagers’ mental health right now?

Ask how your young people are doing and try not to be afraid if their response isn’t positive. Listening to their experience goes a long way. If you’re feeling out of your depth, you can either reach out to a reputable youth service agency or encourage your teenager to do so on their own, thereby boosting their confidence to be their own mental health advocate.

Need2 has robust resource pages available through Need2 and Youth Space, which can help point you in the right direction to access the support your family needs.

How is Need2 providing Island youth with hope during this challenging time?

Island youth can find hope in the fact that after 50 years and amidst this crisis, we are still in operation serving our community. If a young person in your life is struggling, we want them to know that there are resources available to help them get through this difficult time. We’ve heard from our program participants that simply having the knowledge that help is available can provide immense hope.

Through Youth Space, our school-based workshops, and bereavement groups, we know that our programming has a ripple effect on our community. Young people who go through our programs often give back by helping loved ones who are struggling, reaching out to people outside their direct peer groups, and sharing their learning with others. When youth need to reach out, Need2 is there.