How one rural community is bridging the gaps in youth mental health

The Haliburton County Youth Wellness Hub was one of six pilot-project youth hubs in Ontario, a funding partnership between Youth Wellness Hubs Ontario, the provincial government, and the Graham Boeckh Foundation that’s grown into a 30-hub network. The hubs are part of an integrated youth services movement that is spreading across Canada with ‘catalytic leadership from philanthropy.’

The Haliburton County Youth Wellness Hub was one of six pilot-project youth hubs in Ontario, a funding partnership between Youth Wellness Hubs Ontario, the provincial government, and the Graham Boeckh Foundation that’s grown into a 30-hub network. The hubs are part of an integrated youth services movement that is spreading across Canada with ‘catalytic leadership from philanthropy.’

The sky above the still snow-covered Head Lake turns sapphire and a kid on a BMX bike zips past, heading toward Highland Street. He nods and flashes a smile, as nearly everyone seems to do in the streets of Haliburton, Ontario. Even the deer grazing beneath a stand of pines look up before continuing to chew on the first shoots of spring. It’s easy to see why cottagers and nature enthusiasts flock here year after year, but venture beneath the surface of Haliburton County, home to hundreds of lakes and about 20,000 people spread out over more than 4,000 square kilometres in nearly 20 communities, and a tale of two counties emerges.

Just a two-and-a-half-hour drive northeast from one of the wealthiest cities in the world, Haliburton County is one of the poorest communities per capita in Ontario. Nearly a quarter of its children live in poverty. Add to this a housing crisis, limited job opportunities, lack of any type of transit system, high levels of income inequality and food insecurity and what you get is a recipe for a mental health crisis, ticking off every box on the list of known barriers to accessing mental health services. In scenarios like these, youth are most at risk of falling through the cracks. While the grimmest of indicators, death by suicide, is the second leading cause of death among youth in Canada, rural youth are even more at risk.

Six years ago, Haliburton County became part of these statistics. “We were a community in crisis,” says Marg Cox, executive director of Point in Time Centre for Children, Youth and Parents. After a string of suicides, service providers, the school board, police, hospital staff, and residents came together to try to figure out what to do, says Cox. A Youth Suicide Prevention and Wellness Forum, part of a community-wide “Hurting to Hope” initiative, filled the Haliburton Highlands Secondary School gym. One piece of advice from visiting experts shone like a beacon for Cox: “A way to start healing is to engage youth.”

The integrated youth services movement is spreading across Ontario, with ‘catalytic leadership from philanthropy.’

“What do you do for fun in Haliburton?” a short film starring Haliburton youth asks in the opening scene. “Not really anything,” the majority answer. “We snowboard and we swim,” says one girl. “Other than that, there’s nothing.” In 2017, Point in Time and co-lead Haliburton Highlands Health Services, with support from numerous partner organizations, submitted this film as part of a proposal to become one of six pilot-project youth hubs, a funding partnership between Youth Wellness Hubs Ontario (YWHO), the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, and the Ministry of Child and Youth Services, with funding from the Graham Boeckh Foundation (GBF). With this they would join the integrated youth services (IYS) movement – “a blueprint and beach-head for an overdue global system reform,” notes a recent journal article – spreading across Ontario, and the country, with “catalytic leadership from philanthropy.”

When Haliburton celebrated the good news with a “Key to the Door” event in July 2018, Cox, in acknowledging those who had “stepped up” to make this happen, said, “They say it takes a village; in Haliburton it takes a county.” But amidst the celebrations, the ghosts of those who had slipped through the cracks lingered. At the hub’s official grand opening in 2020, the mother of a youth who died by suicide in 2017 spoke out: “It is too late for Morgan, but I believe that this youth hub will save lives.”

Fast forward to March 2023. The kid on the BMX turns right onto Dysart Avenue. Just a few doors down, an unimposing brick building awaits: the Haliburton County Youth Wellness Hub. Enter the front doors and walk across a Persian carpet, sink into a hot-pink bean bag chair, browse through the Youth Hub Little Queer Library. A bowl of apples sits on the kitchen island. Light streams into the high-ceilinged room filled with windows, a reminder that this is the repurposed Lighthouse Church. The hub manager – Mary Sisson – greets you at the front door with a welcoming smile.

In May 2021, children’s hospitals and advocacy organizations declared a nationwide ‘Code Pink.’

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) urges immediate action to prevent “distress from becoming illness” in light of the ongoing toll of the pandemic, with the latest statistics noting a “radical rise” in the numbers of youth seeking help. In May 2021, children’s hospitals and advocacy organizations declared a nationwide “Code Pink” – a pediatric emergency – noting suicide attempt admissions had increased by an average of 100% and admissions for substance misuse by 200%. “Kids are in a state of crisis and we are calling for an emergency response,” wrote Sara Austin, CEO of Children First Canada.

For more than a decade, those in the know have been preparing for such a moment. Dr. Jo Henderson, director of the Margaret and Wallace McCain Centre for Child, Youth & Family Mental Health at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and executive director of YWHO, says, “We have long-standing gaps in our mental health services; people might refer to it as a system. But until recently, and even ongoingly, there was a lack of any systemic approach to meeting the needs of young people.”

Until recently, there was a lack of any systemic approach to meeting the needs of young people.

Jo Henderson, CAMH

YWHO’s core components – accessible location, culturally diverse, integrated governance, youth engagement, integrated service delivery, and measurement based-care – drive outcomes while allowing for adaptation to a local context. That’s a systemic approach, Henderson says, underpinned by different organizations coming together to work under a “common banner that increases visibility and access for young people.” Otherwise, what’s the option? All too often, Henderson says, it’s “the big blue H.” But if you really want to know about youth mental health and how this model works, put away your stats and studies and ask them, she advises. “The most important people have been youth who created this idea.”

It’s early afternoon at the Haliburton County Youth Wellness Hub and Landon, 17, and Dax, 14 (the youth in this piece are referred to by first name only), two of the hub’s regulars, rearrange the leather armchairs into a circle.Sisson sits off to the side in case anyone feels nervous talking to the journalist from Toronto. But it’s clear the only one feeling nervous around here is the journalist from Toronto. This is likely because the youth hub isn’t just a place to hang out after school for Landon and Dax. “It feels like a second home,” Dax says. “It’s kind of like a family. We have dinner together,” he says, pointing toward the kitchen with aqua-blue walls. The mention of dinner sparks a conversation about their future-meals bucket list: brisket, baby back ribs, a corn roast. “Good idea,” says Sisson. “We could definitely do a corn roast this summer.”

Dax didn’t always feel so at home here. A year ago, he made the “nerve-wracking” decision to walk through the hub’s front doors not knowing anyone and feeling “severely depressed.” He immediately noticed the Pride flags, suggesting he’d arrived at a “safe and open space.” But it’s the staff who consistently walk the talk. “It’s the example they set for how people should be treated in this space,” he says, adding they’ve become like role models. “I guess it rubs off on people.”

Openly trans people often experience discrimination in this community, Dax says. Unlike in a city like Toronto, where he imagines lots of “safe spaces” and Gay/Straight Alliances, “you have to physically find your people here,” he says. Even if somebody walks through the hub’s doors that he’s had “bad history” with, Dax feels calmer here, more confident: “When I’m here I don’t feel as small as I do in school.” Landon, who identifies as bi, notes that Haliburton is a very conservative area – “90% hockey, sports, and country kids, and 10% everything else.” People at school still use words like “gay” and “queer” as insults, he says. “And now we have a giant building with rainbows and gay flags,” says Dax. Everybody laughs.

But what Landon and Dax are talking about is no laughing matter. A 2021 nation-wide survey on homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia in Canadian schools (grades 8 to 12) reported “deeply troubling” findings, with 62% of LGBTQ2S+ students saying they felt unsafe at school. Thirty percent are victims of cyberbullying. Despite Haliburton County’s community initiatives, including Rainbow Youth Haliburton and the Minden Pride Parade, memories of Pride flags being stolen and homophobic graffiti linger.

Earlier this morning, LGBTQ2S+ stigma in small towns was the topic of what Marg Cox calls her weekly “rant” on MooseFM, fuelled by the announcement of anti-gay legislation in Africa. “I’m wearing my rainbow in support of Uganda,” she says, adding that a primary goal of the youth hub was to ensure that those who identified as LGBTQ2S+ felt safe, including prioritizing gender-affirming care.

But feeling safe isn’t the only reason Landon and Dax feel at home here. Their input has been an integral part of both the youth hub’s creation and ongoing operations. Youth engagement – summed up by YWHO as “for youth by youth” – fosters “a sense of shared ownership and responsibility,” according to a case study about Foundry, British Columbia’s IYS initiative. One Foundry youth advisor put it this way: looking to adult leaders without lived experience of mental health issues would be “like a vegan was putting together a meat shop.” A YWHO primer summarizes the benefits of youth engagement, which include better self-esteem, a sense of belonging, and feelings of safety and closeness.

Whether it be in the big ‘P’ sense of the word or the individual-person sense of the word, the hub wouldn’t be here without philanthropy.

Marg Cox, Point in Time Centre for Children, Youth and Parents

From the hub’s location (in the so-called Entertainment District near the hockey arena and skatepark), to the contents of the freezer (ice cream sandwiches are a must), to the lighting (ditch the “traumatizing” hospital-like neon, plz), to the programs (from build-your-own-pizza nights to candle-making workshops) – Haliburton youth have been involved at every step, says Cox, and so has philanthropy. “Whether it be in the big ‘P’ sense of the word or the individual-person sense of the word, the hub wouldn’t be here without philanthropy.” She lists the “huge sweat” acts of generosity that came with gutting a church and the numerous donations of other necessities, from laundromat supplies, to cellphones and data plans, to transit services.

Much of the youth input seems to correlate to issues at large in the county: food insecurity, housing crisis, lack of transit, mental health stigma. Offering “wellness activities” to create a space where anyone can go is doubly important in a rural area, “as important as the more formalized supports,” Cox notes, so that no one feels any stigma when they walk through the door.

Landon has been engaging with the hub’s journey since its beginning stages – from site purchase to grand opening. At first, he was just dropping in to play Dungeons and Dragons but was then offered a position on the Youth Advisory Committee (YAC). After years of feeling insecure because of bullying about everything from his weight, to being on the spectrum, to being gay, being part of YAC has “helped break me out of my shell,” he says. Last winter, he stood beside Cox and Mary to accept the Haliburton Highlands Chamber of Commerce Not-for-Profit of the Year award, one of his proudest moments, he says. Not only did he get “to eat a nice dinner and rub shoulders” with local celebrities, including snagging a selfie with Conservative MP Jamie Schmale, he was “recognized as one of the people who’ve helped even in the smallest way to make this place.”

A space that’s youth-led “feels more like it’s our space,” Landon says. “Adults trying to make something have no idea what teens want” and don’t always understand what kinds of struggles they’re facing, such as blaming phones as the source of all their problems. “No, it’s not our phone,” he says. “We’re trying, really trying.” He talks about his generation, Gen-Z, and how there’s this “pervasive mentality” they have to be “perfect, well-rounded teenagers, or else we’re not going to succeed.” At the hub, he says, “no one cares about what you’ve done wrong, or what you’re expected to do. None of that matters. You can just come here to just be – sit on a bean bag and stare at your phone, do a jigsaw puzzle, and have some dinner. Whatever you need.”

Dax agrees. “We’re tired,” he says. “They’re all pushing us. But honestly, once I walk into this building, it feels like a lot of that stress is just gone.” He comes at least twice a week to hang out, and also to see Lindsay and Maddy. At first, these sound like newfound friends, but they’re part of the hub’s core services team – Lindsay Meller and Madison Turpin, a nurse practitioner and a mental health and substance-use clinician. Later tonight, Randy, the hub’s part-time driver, will drive Dax the 30 kilometres home to Wilberforce (highlighting the “biggest barrier” rural youth face: the lack or absence of transit options). This first-names-only vibe underpins another YWHO ethos, called “soft entry” in social-worker speak: create an environment relaxed and inclusive enough that when youth feel ready to ask for help, they will. If you are not a “youth-friendly” person, you may have a hard time getting a job here, says Sisson. Even as the driver. “Randy might be the person that day you decide ‘I need to tell someone what’s happening.’”

Both Landon and Dax stress that having all these supports in one place is a game changer. Before the hub, their options, as in most rural areas, were limited – a doctor or a parent. But not everyone feels comfortable talking to their parents about mental health, and they worry that adults are too busy dealing with their own “stuff.” While they love their parents and know they want to help, the youth hub provides an escape valve of sorts. At the hub, Dax “can talk about what’s going on if I’m struggling without feeling like I’m putting a bunch of pressure or weight onto someone else’s life,” he says. Dax says his family relationships have improved: “Having the opportunity to speak to someone who’s not your parents, who’s an adult, has definitely fixed my mom’s and my relationship.”

Having the space to “just be,” along with all the other supports, gives youth back something that’s increasingly endangered these days: their youth. A recent World Health Organization report documents the tragedy of a global youth mental health crisis, highlighting their “untapped potential to drive change” and important position in WHO’s Survive, Thrive, Transform strategy.

In Haliburton County, Landon and Dax are acutely aware of the challenges ahead of them. “It’s a good community,” Landon says, “but it’s not a great community.” Both have firsthand experience with the county’s inequities – from seeing classmates come to school with nothing more than rotten fruit to eat, to witnessing people sleeping in their cars, to being “forced to work for peanuts” at dead-end jobs (“You can work with wood, or you can work at a cash register,” says Dax). They watch as cottagers come every summer, more than doubling the county’s population, then leave. “They get to come here and trash the place and we have to pick up the scraps,” says Landon. “It’s a vacation for them. This is our lives.”

It’s hard to leave your community, but people feel “forced” to choose between surviving and thriving, says Landon, “which is a shame because it is such a beautiful community. It really is.” For all the county’s challenges, the hub feels like a distillation of a community that has got your back. “Like, anyone would come here if they need something,” says Dax.

When it’s time to go, it’s hard to leave – even if you’re not from here. The kitchen begins to fill with youth coming up from downstairs. One puts on the kettle; another eats a granola bar. A young girl settles into one of the armchairs and flips through a magazine. Their chatter fills the room, the chatter of young people with all the possibility in the world ahead of them. One can’t help but imagine one’s younger self settling in to drink a cup of tea, feeling cared for and safe, or imagine how the lives of so many might have been so different if they’d had a Maddy and a Lindsay and a Mary, who breaks this wistful reverie with a gentle hand on the shoulder. “We have a gift for you,” she says, unfurling a navy-blue T-shirt with “Wellness Your Way” printed in white on the back. “I hope it fits,” she says, leading the way to the front door, and back out into the streets of Haliburton.


In April 2023, 15 young people from the Haliburton County Youth Wellness Hub engaged in a research-creation project with local artist Noelia Marziali and researcher Clara Juando-Prats, from the University of Toronto and St. Michael’s Hospital. Together they experimented with acrylic paint on wood, and following the lead of Noelia, they created a large vibrant mural to be displayed on a wall at the Youth Wellness Hub. The art piece, pictured above, is a representation of the healing connections between the youth and the natural environment. It is an affirmation of a community thriving and caring for each other. 


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