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CHEO program working with teens to destigmatize mental illness

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A recent initiative out of CHEO's YouthNet program is working to destigmatize mental illness in the younger generation.

The organization has launched a Youth Advocacy Committee (YAC), which looks to better connect youth with its mental health programming.

The YAC acts as a peer-to-peer liaison. Its 10 teen members work to build trust with youth in schools and out in the community until they are ready to ask for help from professionals.

"We're still noticing youth are turning to their friends and their peers, rather than parents or other health care professionals," says YouthNet Program Coordinator Fiona Cooligan.

"They can help me and I can help them," explained YAC Leader Lilli Green. "It's such a good process and I'd say every organization who works with youth needs it."

While helping connect younger people with YouthNet's programs, the YAC also gives its members a head start in mental health-related fields

"We can do everything from hiring young people and giving them actual real experiences, to giving them mentorship opportunities and training them in areas where they otherwise wouldn't get that support," said Cooligan.

Sheata Ahmed is a former volunteer for YouthNet. She signed on after moving to Ottawa while still in high school.

"I knew I was interested in mental health-related things and it just looked like a lot of young people doing cool stuff," she said.

It was not long before she started accessing the organization's services – specifically its eight-week 'Mindfulness' program, which focusses on self-care through yoga and peer-to-peer conversations.

"I had really bad social anxiety, but this place helped me get through that and it was so welcoming. It was so easy."

Ahmed used her lived experience to join the YAC and help other teens on their own journeys – aiding YouthNet staff in their intervention programs.

"It was just super engaging," she said. "I had never come across something like this – an organization, a community where they really empower youth and give them a place to speak and express themselves."

The Youth Advocacy Committee is almost entirely funded through community donations. Your support helps the children and youth at CHEO. Visit cheofoundation.com and donate today.

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