Building a future

Clifford Ballantyne was all smiles as the new Youth Centre opened in Sturgeon Lake.

A youth worker from Sturgeon Lake is out to improve the lives of other young people in his community.

Clifford Ballantyne, a youth peer mentor, hopes the project driven by youth, for youth, will help researchers learn the best ways to tackle mental health issues, while providing young people with the resources they need to win their own battles with mental illness.

On May 26th, the first stage of that project came to fruition through the official launch of the Sturgeon Lake ACCESS Open Minds research project and the grand opening of the new Sturgeon Lake First Nation youth centre..

ACCESS Open Minds the first pan-Canadian network to be launched under the Strategy for Patient-Oriented Research (SPOR). Funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Graham Boeckh Foundation, the $25 million project aims to transform current system to meet the needs of youth aged 11-25 who are experiencing mental health problems.

There are currently 12 ACCESS sites across Canada, serving a variety of communities, big and small, spanning across English, French and Indigenous Canada. Sturgeon Lake is the first site to open in Saskatchewan.

A five-year research project, ACCESS Open Minds has five objectives to focus on: early identification, rapid access, youth and family participation, continuity of care beyond the age of 18 and appropriate care.

Ballantyne believes the project will not only make a valuable difference to mental health researchers, but also improve the lives of the youth of Sturgeon Lake. Part of that is done through asking young people what they need, and through enriching their native culture.

“When we talk about culture, I’m founded on my culture as a First Nations person,” Ballantyne said. “That’s what has grounded me as a person. If we take some of those fundamentals and work with the youth, it will create a healthier (community) in the long run. If you try to amplify the skills they already have, as well as taking that self-identity back into the community, they’ll be less prone to mental health issues like anxiety and depression.”

The project originally got off to a bit of a rocky start. Phase one was getting the youth involved. Last summer Ballantyne and others on the project attempted to start by holding a youth engagement session. They advertised, bought pizza, provided transportation, and brought the researchers in, but nobody showed up. They realized if they wanted to engage the youth, they couldn’t try to get the youth to come to them. They had to meet the youth where they were.

“We had to take a step back,” Ballantyne said. “We started sitting back on the research a bit, and engaging the youth, playing basketball and soccer in the different villages, providing a wiener roast. Later, we hooked up with the school to create this youth space.”

That youth space, the youth centre, was truly created by, and for young people.

“We had to have the youth involved,” Ballantyne said. “ They would come in and develop the youth space, from fixing doors to painting walls, to picking the colour of the floor, the couches – pretty much all aspects of the centre’s renovation.”

The project went from not having any interest, to involving 30 youth, 16 of which are core members. The centre in turn works with the local mental health therapist, the site lead and health director, the wellness coordinator, the holistic wellness coordinator and two family members.

The project also works with the school and the band office to find a way to provide better services when it comes to mental health.

In between, events are held with the young people targeted by the program. In one activity, they gathered the youth together and gave them blank masks. They talked about what it means to be an Indigenous person, and then sent the youth to paint their masks with what that meant to them, how they saw themselves. They came back and discussed around the circle what they created. The project was called Faces of Reconciliation.

By working with the young people this way; by going to them on their level and bringing them in, they’ve created a more sustainable project.

“If you start with the community, and start building from the community and the youth themselves, there’s that sense of ownership and trust,” Ballantyne said.

That ownership and trust was evident last month, when youth who weren’t part of the program broke into the centre.

Those involved with the program called the director of the school, and the clinician, and Ballantyne himself. They wanted to make sure their space, and their voice, wouldn’t be taken away.

People wanted to do something with the culprits, but Ballantyne said that’s the wrong approach.

“These are the youth we have to reach out to. This is who we want to provide this service for, because there are needs that aren’t being met. That’s why they lash out like this.”

Now that the project is officially launched and the youth centre open, Ballantyne is looking ahead to the next phase, of truly incorporating those cultural elements into his project.

He thinks he’s been successful so far because of his own experience and perspective as a young adult, a perspective shared by the researcher. He feels it will have a positive impact on his community, as it gives youth a chance to be heard in a way they haven’t had before.

“There’s young people working with the youth day in and day out, basing the program on what the youth want to see,” Ballantyne said. “We’re looking at where support is needed, and what will make us stronger in terms of our mental health care, and how we incorporate the idea of culture as healing. With this project, we’re giving youth a voice to say what’s on their mind matters to us, and asking how we can help them with that.”

Note: This is a corrected story. The original story listed the incorrect number of ACCESS sites. The Herald regrets the error and any confusion it may have caused.