University and Region join forces to improve mental health of children and youth

York University Mental Health & Emotional Well-Being Group and the York Region Mental Health Collaborative have joined forces to help identify ways to improve the mental health and emotional well-being of children and youth.

The two groups signed a Memorandum of Understanding last week outlining their commitment to this joint-initiative at the Markham Convergence Centre with support from the York Centre for Education and Community.

Gail McVey and Harvey Skinner

“Many York University faculty, staff and students live in York Region. You can’t separate the two,” says Lesley Beagrie of the Faculty of Health and co-chair of the York University Mental Health & Emotional Well-Being Group, along with education Professor Alice Pitt, vice-provost academic. As such, both the region and the University educate and serve much of the same population, and share a desire to work together. With mental health becoming increasingly recognized as an important and often neglected or misunderstood factor for school success, economic independence and community health, it is important to have strategic next steps for future collaboration.

Beagrie says she’s had dozens of petitions from students who haven’t met academic deadlines because of severe mental health issues, from eating disorders and depression to anxiety and family pressure, as well as visits from faculty members who are concerned about the mental health of their students. “It is important to help with the transition from secondary to post-secondary school,” says Beagrie. “That’s a large component of this collaboration for me.”

By helping families and students in the elementary and secondary levels in York Region, it helps students who then come to York. “A comprehensive and holistic approach is what’s needed,” she says.

“Everyone in this room, along with many others who are with us in spirit, are familiar with the urgent need to deepen our understanding of mental health issues and to co-ordinate our efforts in prevention, service and community education,” Pitt told the gathering Wednesday..

The collaboration will address the urgent need for mental health practitioners, educators, government agencies, community organizations and researchers to learn from and with each other to ensure that appropriate and timely supports and treatments are available to all who need them. The goal is to create a framework for collaboration on several key areas, including leadership, education, program evaluation and research.

MOU signing

MOU signing, from left, Lesley Beagrie, Chris Simmons-Physick of MHC, Professor Alice Pitt of the Faculty of Education, Harvey Skinner, dean of the Faculty of Health, and Wendy Leve of MHC

“The University is engaged in some extraordinary research and there is a lot of learning that comes out of that research that can help those in York Region,” says Beagrie. It’s another opportunity for community engagement where York can inform service provision.

York University’s community partner in this project, the Mental Health Collaborative, whose co-chairs are Chris Simmons-Physick and Wendy Leve, serves to provide a multi-sector forum for service providers in York Region to discuss common issues and themes, and to work collaboratively whenever possible to plan and develop system responses to identified areas of need. It seeks to respond to the explicit mandate of government funders to find ways of ensuring that families experience their journey within the child and youth mental health service system as a positive, meaningful and ultimately impactful one.

Psychologist and York alumna Gail McVey (BA Spec. Hons. ’85, MA’89,  PhD’95), health system research scientist in the Community Health Systems Resource Group at the Hospital for Sick Kids, was the keynote speaker at the event. She introduced the complex health issue of weight-related disorders, such as eating disorders and obesity, and stressed the importance of collaborative, cross-sectoral partnerships in supporting and advancing prevention of these health issues.

McVey’s program of prevention research is aimed at specific age groups of children, youth and young adults, as well as at the adults who mentor them. Mental health promotion and resiliency building are core features of this prevention research. This approach has the added benefit of helping to prevent disordered eating and associated risky behaviours such as smoking, substance use, and mood problems.

signatures on commemorative canvasAdult influencers as agents of change are key in helping children and youth to establish healthy lifestyles and develop patterns of resiliency, but weight stigma is prevalent across Canada, particularly among health professionals and educators. Although there are challenges in working through community/institutional partnerships, community-based collaborations, such as the newly-launched York2 (which the collaboration is called) partnership are crucial, said McVey, director of the Ontario Community Outreach Program for Eating Disorders and a professor in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.

Such cross-sectoral alliances represent the way forward for deepening the discoveries of best practices to promote mental health and emotional well-being; for supporting the implementation, for example, the uptake and sustainability of these best practices by relevant stakeholders in health, education and sport; and for exchanging and translating of knowledge on such best practices, said McVey, co-author of the book, Preventing Eating-Related and Weight-Related Disorders: Collaborative Research, Advocacy and Policy Change.

Harvey Skinner, dean of the Faculty of Health, issued this challenge: “Over the next 10 years, may York region become the healthiest region in mental health and emotional well-being, and may York University become the healthiest University in the same respect.”

Participating organizations include regional mental health service providers, the York Region and York Catholic District School Boards, and York University faculty and staff.

For more resources on supporting student health and well-being, visit the School Mental Health Assist website.