My Visit to Northeastern Ontario!

By Mary-Anne Leahy

Last week I had the privilege go to northeastern Ontario and visit our three groups with NEOFACS (North Eastern Ontario Family and Children’s Services) in Timmins, Kapuskasing, and Kirkland Lake!

There were four things that were clear at the end of this trip!

  1. The youth in these groups are dynamic, powerful, and full of wisdom
  2. The adult allies of these three groups really care about the youth in the community and want to give them a platform to lead projects that are driven by their passion and issues raised by youth.
  3. Northeastern Ontario has unique challenges
    • Stigma is still very strong and this means that youth aren’t always able to access treatment because of the intense stigma of even entering the building to receive services.
    • There are not enough specialized professionals like psychiatrists and psychologists. Youth are accessing these types of professionals through video-chats which some youth found helpful but others felt they needed a more in-person personal connection.
  4. If you’re going to be travelling up north in the winter you need a truck!

My Trip

After a short but delayed flight due to weather I arrived in Timmins from Toronto ready for my first group visit! I arrived early to meet with Adult Ally Ellen Renaud to talk about the group and what it’s like to access services in Timmins. I was happy to learn that they were not struggling with wait times much like the rest of the province. This seemed promising until I learned about other areas they were experiencing gaps in services, like not having on-site specialists. It is clear to me that not only do we need a significant annualized investment in children and youth mental health – $120 million to be exact + $40 million to support transitional aged youth. But that we need youth and services providers from across the province to help the government understand how to best invest this money so children and youth across the province get the mental health treatment they need when they need and specific to their geographical, cultural, and individual needs. This visit really opened my eyes that every community in Ontario has different needs and it is critical that our government understands that.

The next morning I woke up to an email from Ellen saying the weather was too bad and I couldn’t drive to Kapuskasing. To say I was disappointed would be a huge understatement. I wanted to go but being my first time driving out there I felt I should probably listen. I decided to test out the roads by driving to the rental car company to see about upgrading my dinky compact car with no winter tires. Well… I ran 2 red lights and almost hit 3 cars so it was safe to say this car wasn’t going to get me to Kapuskasing! Luckily they had Ford 4 by 4 truck and I was on the road again!

Kapuskasing was small. Even smaller then I imagined. I met with three youth from the New Mentality group and learned so much about what it means to struggle with your mental health in a small community. The youth spoke strongly about how mental health can intersect with other identities in our life like gender and sexuality. The youth in this group had a ton of great recommendations on how to improve the agency – like dimmer switches! They said in the counselling rooms the lights were too bright and distracting when they were in sessions and felt that a dimmer switch would allow youth to decide what type of lighting works best for them so they are as comfortable as possible before they bare their soul and struggles to their counsellor. They stressed the importance of youth feeling comfortable in counselling spaces. It was great to see NEOFACS already taking into account the suggestions from the group by adding posters to the counselling rooms to make them more youth friendly!

Kirkland Lake was beautiful, I went for a tour of the town with Adult Ally Susan Ranta, I must have asked her a thousand questions about the area! I was interested to learn Kirkland Lake had a buzzing music scene that brought in big bands and the community hosted an annual winter carnival that I wish I could attend as it sounds like a lot of fun! The New Mentality meeting was amazing, like the other groups the youth were dynamic, powerful, full of wisdom, welcoming and lots of fun! They have a ton of great project ideas to help reduce stigma in their community and have lot of great recommendations of how to improve mental health services in their community. Something I really liked that the group did was when the McKayla, the youth facilitator of the group, asked a question and then we went around and answered it. One of the questions was “what’s something you have overcome?” It was a really cool way for the group to get to know each other and learn more about each person on an individual level.

There was no question in mind when I flew back to Toronto that the youth I met are forces to be reckoned with and are full of wisdom and that the staff at NEOFACS really care about youth engagement and making it a really positive experience for youth. I look forward to my next visit (hopefully in warmer weather!)