On February 16–17, 2012, the Department of Justice, Ministry of Children and Youth Services, York University Center for Education and Community, the Toronto District School Board and the Youth Association for Academics, Athletics and Character Education hosted a collaborative conference in the North York area of Toronto. Entitled Being Proactive: Supporting Children and Youth Mental Health and Wellness in Schools and Communities, the conference took as its specific focus the impact of violence, poverty, racism, loss/bereavement, abandonment and neglect, street/gang life, incarceration, and institutional and community apathy on the mental health of children and youth, especially those living in the city’s poor and racialized communities.
This conference explored the depth and breadth of these challenges while examining how various parties – educators, mental health professionals, front-line workers, children and youth professionals from the various social service sectors, and individuals working in the criminal justice system – can take a proactive approach to supporting children and youth in schools and communities. A significant number of children and youth from racialized communities exposed to violence, racism, and poverty continue to underachieve academically thereby paving the way for their ensnarement in the school to prison vortex. Many scholars, community children and youth advocates argue that there is an inextricable link between educational attrition and exposure to the aforementioned negative environment factors, usually culminating in a life of poverty, incarceration or death.
The conference reflected the beginning of a paradigm shift to an exploratory and proactive approach to mental health issues in children and youth as opposed to an apathetic and reactive approach currently employed by numerous ministries, school boards, institutions and organizations. However, that shift is by no means complete. Presenters looked at the impact of racialization and trauma on youth and its manifestations in youth violence, the criminal justice system, and the experience of youth in the education system – all through the lens of mental health. There is a direct correlation between the segment of the population most affected by the variables impacting mental health and those who are the victims and perpetrators of violence, those who are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system and those who are the lowest achievers in our educational systems.