Now that we’re actively working to flatten the COVID-19 curve, it’s time to work on the rising prevalence of mental heal related issues in youth in Canada. This week we spoke to Eric Windeler, founder and executive director of Jack.org, to learn about how his organization is working to provide young adults with the mental health support they need.
Describe your charity/non-profit in a few sentences
Jack.org is Canada’s only national charity training and empowering young people to revolutionize mental health in every province and territory. Through programs like Jack Talks, Jack Chapters, Jack Summits, and Do Something we strengthen youth leadership capacity, build youth mental health literacy, reduce youth-identified barriers to help-seeking, and empower young people to advocate for systems-level change. Through ambitious innovations like our globally recognized and award-winning Be There resource, Jack.org gives people the mental health resources they need to educate themselves about how to take care of their own mental health and support those close to them who are struggling. We’re based in Toronto, and have activities in 250 communities all across Canada.
What problem does it aim to solve?
We envision a Canada where all young people understand how to take care of their own mental health and look out for each other. A Canada without shame, where everyone who needs support has access to the help they deserve. While this has always been important, it is especially so now. The current pandemic has caused an unprecedented disruption in the lives of young people, and we’re seeing huge spikes in mental health distress across Canada. Jack.org has made a rapid pivot to digital programming in response. We’re doing our part to ‘flatten the curve’ of the mental health crisis that is building, and ensure young people have the engaging and relevant supports and education they need to ensure positive mental health both now and beyond this pandemic.
When did you start/join it?
My wife (Sandra Hanington) and I co-founded Jack.org in 2010, initially as a memorial fund at Kids Help Phone. At that point we were known as The Jack Project.
What made you want to get involved?
We started Jack.org after losing our eldest son, Jack, to suicide during his first year at Queen’s University. Jack’s tragic passing came as a complete shock to his family, friends and those around him at school. We had no idea he was struggling, and those around him who saw warning signs weren’t educated enough about mental health to recognize signs of distress or how to support him. We knew that Jack’s story was far from unique, and we wanted to ensure that something good could come from this loss. We founded what would become the national charity Jack.org to ensure that young people receive appropriate mental health education, and that those struggling know where to access the support they deserve. Fast forward ten years, we have a staff of 46 and over 3,000 young leaders volunteering with us, working to revolutionize mental health across Canada.
What was the situation like when you started?
We started our first significant pilot program with 26 schools back in 2011. It became clear that young people were not being effectively engaged on the topic of mental health, and that stigma was a major factor in the lack of awareness and education around this important topic. Suicide was, and still is, the leading health-related cause of death in young people in Canada, and mental health wasn’t being talked about nearly enough. And overwhelmingly, young people didn’t have access to education or resources (especially engaging ones) that taught them how to find support, take care of themselves, or look out for each other.
How has it changed since?
The last decade has been marked by a significant increase in mental health education and a marked decrease in shame about speaking out about mental health struggles. This has been an essential step toward a country where young people can equitably access the mental health support they deserve. We have seen incredible work by our young leaders across the country in identifying and dismantling barriers to positive mental health in their communities. But there is much more work to be done.
What more needs to be done?
With a significant increase in mental health education and decrease in shame, more young people are reaching out than ever before. However, mental health services have not developed quickly enough to keep pace with the scale of demand. This has left many young people dealing with a mental health struggle yet lacking sufficient support to address it. Over the next five years, we will continue to provide upstream mental health education, support and resources to young people and lean into digital to complement our in-person programs, to meet young people where they are – online. We will also work to address the largest barriers to improvement of youth mental health outcomes in Canada. We’ll do this with young people themselves at the forefront of the conversation – honouring their perspectives and helping to make sure that all young people can access the support they deserve.
How can our readers help?
Medavie has contributed an incredible $200,000 matching donation to Jack.org to accelerate and expand our digital transformation and empower Canada’s young people to take care of their mental health now and beyond this global pandemic. All donations made at Jack.org/Medavie will be matched by Medavie up to $200,000, allowing donors to double their impact. These donations will help ensure that all youth have access to the resources they need to take care of their mental health, both now and moving forward. Beyond that, readers can engage young people in their lives with the work of Jack.org and review our Be There resource at www.BeThere.org.
Do you have any events coming up?
We’ve just come through our busiest season of fundraisers including our incredible ‘virtual’ Jack Ride event. Look out for registration here for Jack Ride 2021!
This summer we will be hosting a number of online live streams, including Jack Music. Every other Thursday evening over the summer, you can tune into Jack.org’s Instagram (@jackdotorg) to see our young leaders chatting about mental health with musicians like RALPH, Tyler Shaw, and DESIIRE – who will of course be performing some tunes.
Where can we follow you?
PAY IT FORWARD: What is an awesome local charity that you love?
Kids Help Phone is the local (and national) charity that most resonates with me. They are Canada’s best practice help line (phone, chat and text) that provides free, anonymous counselling to young people who need help of any kind.