Created to help address the mental health needs of Canada’s 2SLGBTQ+ youth, CBRC’s Do You Mind? project recently concluded its first year with successful programs in Halifax, Edmonton, and Vancouver.
“Our goal was to empower queer and trans youth to become mental health advocates in their own communities,” says National Coordinator Fowzia Huda, who led a webinar on the pilot project’s first year findings on Thursday, March 25. Joining her in the discussion was program coordinators Kirk Furlotte (The Youth Project), Holly Abt (EMHC), Emily Bailey (YouthCO), and Ricky Rodrigues (CBRC).
The Do You Mind? program was first developed in response to findings from CBRC’s 2018 Sex Now Survey. The study showed significant differences in mental health outcomes between sexual minority populations and their heterosexual counterparts. It also highlighted the unique barriers that gay, bisexual, transgender, Two-Spirit and queer (GBT2Q) men and non-binary people experience when trying to access services such as clinical counsellors, psychiatrists, or social workers. Notably, the data also suggested that young trans men and non-binary communities face even greater mental health outcome disparities in comparison with their cisgender GBQ peers.
“It was clear that more needed to be done in order to support the needs of trans and non-binary individuals’ mental health in Canada,” says Huda. “With the development of a program like Do You Mind? we hope to make a large impact on improving the mental health of broader queer and trans communities.”
Even though the Sex Now Survey focused on the lives of GBT2Q men and non-binary people, the Do You Mind? team felt it was important for the program to address the needs of all 2SLGBTQ+ youth. (In the future, CBRC will address this gap by collecting critical mental health data among broader sexual and gender minority communities.)
Joining forces with The Youth Project in Halifax, EMHC in Edmonton, and YouthCO in Vancouver, CBRC met up with our partners in early 2020, before the pandemic, to discuss each region’s needs. It was then determined that Do You Mind? would be tailored to each individual city, offering opportunities for participants to both increase their knowledge of good mental health practices and develop their skills in order to create impactful mental health pilot projects in their communities.
“The program was designed for community by the community,” says Huda. “Community folks know what they need best, and then they put in the work towards that need with the support of the partner agency.” As the program’s National Coordinator, Huda feels passionate about the work. “Some of us were not able to have this kind of access growing up, so now we are able to make a contribution in order to make sure that younger folks have access to mental health services.”
“In Halifax, we partnered with The Youth Project,” says Kirk Furlotte, CBRC’s Atlantic Regional Manager. “We worked with them to plan curriculum delivery, recruit participants and guest speakers. They were excited to have an opportunity to do something for older youth, and to also have some new, unique programming during the pandemic.”
Like with our other projects, the pandemic interfered with the Halifax cohort’s original plans. Restrictions, however, were somewhat less severe than in other parts of the country, and The Youth Project was able host a socially distant lunch for participating youth and facilitators. “We ended up with five participants, representing a fairly diverse group, which included someone new to Canada, as well as non-binary and Two-Spirit folks.”
The group discussed the importance of storytelling and the need to reclaim one’s narrative, since most stories about 2SLGBTQ youth are often stories of tragedy. The group had the idea to create a writing workshop where the participants could write and exchange inspirational stories for a possible collaborative zine that celebrated “Small Wins, Queer Victories.” The content would explore how even the smallest win can be considered an act of selfcare.
“We talked a lot about resilience,” says Furlotte, “and how easy it is to take things like coming out and living out for granted. Asking people to respect your pronouns might seem like a burden, but the fact that you are at the point where you can ask that—where you’ve built up the resilience in yourself to do that—that is something we don’t celebrate enough. These are small wins, and you get big queer victories out of them.”
Furlotte was very impressed with his cohort and finds the lack of similar programs out there for 2SLGBTQ+ youth to be striking. “It makes sense that there should be more mental health skill building workshops or leadership development opportunities for queer, trans, and Two-Spirit youth, because we know they are disproportionately affected. It’s not just about self-care. It’s about recognizing that if we want to make change, we have to empower youth to be the leader of that change and give them the skills to advocate for themselves.”
The Do You Mind? Edmonton cohort decided to explore mentorship and intergenerational exchange for their project. Building connections between community members—particularly between those from different generations—was identified as an effective way of equipping young 2SLGBTQ+ community members with the tools, resources, and support needed to overcome the social and mental health challenges they face.
Working with EMHC, CBRC put out a call for applicants for a 2SLGBTQ+ mentorship program in December 2019. “We were looking through the applications and prioritized need,” says Holly Abt, the program’s Edmonton Community Coordinator. “First, we looked at the mentee applications and identified their needs. One of the things we noticed was a lack of social support in rural areas where there are not many resources. We then looked through the mentor applications to find people who were a match for the applicants.” Although the goal was to focus on intergenerational connection, that was not always possible as some of the mentor applicants were young people themselves. “We tried to make the matches intergenerational, but we also wanted to consider the likelihood of creating a lasting connection. We also looked at shared intersectional identities and other preferences as well.”
Even though EMHC received almost 50 applications from potential mentors, only 12 matches could be made. “Unfortunately, a lot of people had to be turned away,” says Abt. Three-quarters of the cohort were from Edmonton and about one-quarter came from Lacombe, a small town south of Edmonton. The 6-week program took place on Zoom in summer 2020, with pairs across Alberta meeting up for one-hour meetings every week. There were three different mentorship categories: coming out, service navigation, and dating and relationships. “We created some prompts for discussion, some open-ended exploratory questions based on each category, but we didn’t want to restrict them and encouraged them to talk about things outside of the theme.” One pair even spent their time cooking together.
Much of the feedback we received from the intervention expressed that it was a very validating experience for participants. “It gave people confidence in their identities,” says Abt. “It made people feel like they were not alone. That validation and affirmation of identity and experience was really powerful.”
One key takeaway for Abt about the Edmonton program was that there is value among young people for intergenerational learning. “Some of the critical feedback we received was that some people missed out on the intergenerational piece when they were paired with someone closer to their own age.” Another learning is how important representation is. “Many people said that after this experience they plan to be more involved in their queer community, and that they want to make more queer friends—especially now, during the pandemic, when people are feeling more isolated and there are just some topics you are not able to discuss with your cis and straight friends.”
In Vancouver, CBRC partnered with YouthCO. “We were tasked with finding new and creative ways to unite queer and trans youth across the Fraser Valley,” says Program Manager Emily Bailey. Even with BC’s restrictions, the group was permitted to gather in-person for a four-day retreat in Abbotsford to explore the intersections of the cohort’s queer and trans identities with the issues of mental health and HIV.
In all, there were five participants and two facilitators. Together, the group unpacked their thoughts and experiences around mental health, identifying a shared experience around consent and suicidal ideation. “We had quite an extensive conversation around the complicated nuances that exist around the duty to report that certain service providers in our lives have had to intervene on, and how that’s been ultimately a traumatizing experience for many of us whenever we have shared our suicidal ideation,” says Bailey. “Oftentimes, without our knowing, steps are taken to intervene on what other people believe is necessary for us in our lives.”
Together, the group began to discuss what could be done in this regard that would have an impact on their community, and also address their own needs of personal agency. The cohort discussed what skills they would like to have, as well as what skills they would like those in their lives to have—people who might not necessarily be service providers, but other peer or family members in their lives. “We would like them to know how to support us when we are initially experiencing thoughts of suicidal ideation.”
The group ended up creating an online resource that names five things they wish folks had done for them in those moments. “It’s kind of us speaking to our peers because we are both people who experience suicidal ideation and are in relationships with people who experience suicidal ideation,” says Bailey. “These are ways we can show up for each other that can centre consent, our relationships, and our wellbeing.”
For Bailey, hosting this program during the pandemic really brought home the need for the Do You Mind? program. “We were very privileged in BC to be able to do this in a way that our peers in other places weren’t able to. I know this time had a big impact on these five youths. We have already seen the ways in which they have taken on leadership in their communities in such a different way.”
WHAT WE LEARNED
Overall, even though it was stressful and challenging for everyone involved, year one of Do You Mind? was a success. Program coordinators had to be flexible, rolling with the challenges and accommodating our partners’ needs. “We got positive feedback with evaluations from across the country,” says Huda. “The feedback we received will help us improve for the next cycle of the program.”
With COVID-19 restrictions, all interventions had to move online. This had some advantages (the ability to reach people in remote regions, no need for childcare in order to participate), but also some disadvantages (less organic connection between participants, required access to the internet and computers). “We have just finished one of the hardest years for everyone,” says Huda. “Next year we will be able to plan better and have back up plans. Now we know how we can better engage folks online as times are changing. As the vaccines become more available, we can host hybrid sessions so we can retain the human aspect while also staying true to the responsibilities of the program. Hopefully, the second cycle will be even better than the first.”
This webinar took place in March 2021 but remains available for viewing here.