STEVEN LEE/THE VARSITY

Jack.org U of T, an organization of young leaders dedicated to changing approaches toward mental health, held its first annual regional summit at U of T’s Earth Sciences Centre on March 24. Alongside a keynote address from U of T Health & Wellness’ Psychiatrist-in-Chief, Dr. Andrea Levinson, attendees were invited to both expert and student-led panels, as well as workshops and collaborative sessions.

Levinson founded an early intervention clinic for young people with bipolar disorder at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), where she is currently a staff psychiatrist. She focused her keynote address on the mental well-being of young people ages 18–24. “Early warning signs of mental illness, if they are left undiagnosed, untreated — they leave young people extremely vulnerable,” she said.

Levinson stressed the importance of services in places where people in that age range spend their time: postsecondary educational institutions, which engage 83 per cent of Ontario’s young adults. “Our campuses are the workplace and playground of our young adults,” she said. “This is where the action happens.”

Speaking to The Varsity after her address, Levinson said that she “loved being part of this event” but was very aware of the age disparity between herself and the audience. “I even questioned why a keynote should be given by someone who wasn’t a member of the youth community themselves,” she said. However, after speaking to the organizers to understand the themes and tone of the summit, Levinson felt that she was able to deliver a speech that “could align itself with that tone, and with the spirit of the day.”

Levinson said that the best way to raise mental health awareness as a student is in “small everyday interactions in one’s more intimate relationships, in one’s residence,” as well as in classrooms and tutorial groups.

The speakers on the expert panel were Eric Windeler, who founded Jack.org in 2010 after the death of his son; Mike Stroh, founder of Starts With Me, a group that hosts presentations on mental health to “support gaps in education and services;” and Nicole German, founder of The Maddie Project, which seeks to prevent youth and families from dealing with mental health issues without help.

Stroh said that one problem facing advocates is the distinction between mental health and mental illness. “A lot of the awareness that’s been happening is fantastic, but I think that distinction is getting blurred,” he said. “Not everyone has a diagnosis or experiences mental illness, and I think those things are quite different.”

German discussed changing the way the issue is viewed, saying “we want mental health to be like nutrition… all the labels about what’s in your food and thinking about what you eat — it’s the same way with mental health. Every day we should be thinking about that.”

Disclosure: The organizer of the summit, Sean Smith, sits on The Varsity’s board of directors.

Stay up to date. Sign up for our weekly newsletter, sent straight to your inbox:

* indicates required