Jack.org organizes an annual national summit for mental health advocates. ADAM A. LAM/THE VARSITY

More than 250 students from every Canadian province and territory attended the National Jack Summit in downtown Toronto from March 1–3 to discuss mental health supports for students. The National Jack Summit is a Canada-wide conference hosted by the charity Jack.org, which funds support and training for students to combat mental health challenges in their communities.

The goals of the summit included educating students on developing techniques to help those facing mental health challenges, learning how resources and barriers to addressing mental health issues differ across the country, and creating very specific plans of action to bring back to their communities.

Federal Minister of Health Ginette Petitpas Taylor delivered a welcome address for the event. She discussed her personal experiences when her brother received a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia in the 1980s, her over two decades of experience as a social worker, and her work to expand services for mental health treatment as the federal health minister.

She thanked students representing the charity for their advocacy work and dedication, and expressed excitement for their future plans in supporting others facing mental health issues.

Loss of son in first year of university led to founding of charity

Eric Windeler, a co-founder of Jack.org, spoke with The Varsity about the motivation behind the charity. He said that he and his wife founded the charity after the loss of their son, Jack Windeler, during his first year at Queen’s University in March 2010.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t know, but he was struggling with his mental health… we lost Jack by suicide. We only found out from the call from… a police officer.”

The family realized that if they could lose a child to mental health challenges, “it can happen to anybody.” After running a two-year pilot project with Kids Help Phone, they learned that “young people were kind of being left out of this conversation” on mental health.

Since then, Jack.org has become a national charity with 32 staff and almost 3,000 youth volunteers. Representatives of the charity train volunteers on “how to be responsible advocates” for good mental health.

Volunteers are then empowered to identify barriers to addressing mental health issues in their communities, and design initiatives to break down these barriers to “good mental health and good mental health conversations.” This often involves providing educational sessions, connecting students to support services, and advocating on behalf of students.

University of Toronto represented at summit

Amy Wang, a network representative for Toronto and UTSC student, discussed how she became involved with Jack.org and the unique challenges that students at UTSC face.

She spoke about how she struggled with mental health during her first and second years of university. She had a lot of family issues and academic struggles, but she “knew that it wasn’t just [her] feeling this way,” and wanted to make a difference on campus.

These experiences pushed her toward mental health advocacy and Jack.org. “I wanted to let other people know that it’s okay to struggle, as long as you do get the help that you need,” she said. “I want to be able to make people feel that they’re all able to achieve what they set out [to do].”

To Wang, barriers to mental health that are specific to UTSC relate to “transparency with academic policies, mental health policies, and even just navigating the academic landscape as something that’s needed.” She recalled the difficulty of transitioning from high school to university and “would love to see more programs or supports in place” to help students overcome these barriers.

On the advocacy front, another issue specific to U of T students resulted from the university-mandated leave of absence policy passed last year, said Wang. The policy can mandate students to halt their studies if their mental health “poses a dangerous, physical risk to themselves or others.”

While Wang noted that “the intention behind it is to protect students,” she feels that “the policy still needs a lot of work to essentially communicate that we’re working with the students and not against them.”

To Wang, advocacy to revise the policy to provide clearer guidance to students placed on leave would provide better support to students at U of T.

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