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Keeping it ‘Real Talks’: Youth Programming in North Vancouver

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By Fergus Allen

The Crisis Centre of BC has been offering youth programming in schools across the province for over 20 years. In 2020, we were approached by three students to partner on a peer-led model for mental health promotion. Their proposal was so impressive, we just couldn’t turn them down. As a result, we’ve been partnering on this project with two schools – one in North Vancouver and one in West Vancouver – for two years. 

The Real Talks model, as envisioned by youth leaders Assal Rezaei and Sierra Lee, was to create a youth-led space for students to openly discuss mental health and be empowered with tools and resources. As a partner, the Crisis Centre supports this initiative by offering free training and providing a facilitator to support peer leaders at the Real Talk groups.  

This project has been supported by funding from the City and District of North Vancouver and Vancouver Coastal Health. 

In many cases, societal norms encourage people to hide their emotions, especially the unpleasant ones. There is an unfortunate expectation to default to stoicism above all else, when in fact everyone struggles with their mental health at some point in their lives; as emotional beings, it’s in our nature.

“Mental health is something that’s kind of taboo,” says Assal Rezaei, a student at Sutherland Secondary. “It’s sort of scary for students to talk about.”

“At my school, I found that there weren’t many conversations about mental health,” echoes Sierra Lee, a senior at Sentinel Secondary. 

“I would have loved something like this in my teenage years,” says Karen Brady, the Crisis Centre’s co-facilitator for the programme. “To have peers openly talking about their own experience with mental health…it normalizes it, so that it just becomes a part of our everyday conversation.”

Real Talks consists of 3-4 sessions, each about 1.5 hours long. During each session, small groups of students get together to discuss various issues surrounding mental health, as well as  learn self-care and mindfulness strategies to support their wellbeing. 

“For most of the sessions,” explains Sierra, “There was a co-facilitation piece between Karen and a peer with lived experience.” These peer leaders co-lead the group through various activities and bravely support the interactive parts with examples from their own lives of dealing with mental health challenges, from test anxiety to depression and more. This, in turn, encourages openness on the part of the other participants to engage actively in discussions.

Sierra continues: “At our most recent session, we did an activity where we had all of the attendees write some of their negative thoughts down on paper.” The attendees would then crumple up their pieces of paper and the peer with lived experience would read them out, the notes themselves remaining completely anonymous. “The purpose of that activity was to show everyone how we actually have a lot of the same struggles and doubts.”

With Karen’s guidance, these activities would springboard into discussions incorporating mindfulness practices that the students could then apply to their own lives beyond the sessions. “We all have such common negative self-thoughts…talking allows us to open up a little space for self-compassion,” says Karen. “To sit and share stories and to witness each other. And to say ‘Yeah, you know, me too.’”

So, what’s next for Real Talks? The aim is to get the programme into more schools, says Assal. “Sierra and I have made this kind of blueprint, and we’d like to spread it to other schools in the district, to see if they’d want to run something similar.” 

“I’m graduating this year,” says Sierra, “so I would love it if we could get Real Talks to some more people because I think the impact has been really meaningful…conversations about mental health need to be had.”

“I feel like with mental health…” says Assal, “Everyone is afraid that talking about it is going to lead to mental illness or the idea of contagion. Like if we start talking about it, Pandora’s box will open and now everyone’s gonna get it. But it’s really not like that. I feel like people need to put their guard down when it comes to mental health.

Nothing good ever came from trying to hide a problem.”

Learn more about youth programming offered by the Crisis Centre of BC online.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call:

  • Vancouver Coastal Regional Distress Line: 604-872-3311
  • Anywhere in BC 1-800-SUICIDE: 1-800-784-2433
  • Mental Health Support Line: 310-6789
  • Online Chat Service for Youth: www.YouthInBC.com (Noon to 1am)
  • Online Chat Service for Adults: www.CrisisCentreChat.ca (Noon to 1am)