Mental Health

How Youth Are Different

Our previous strategies to serve youth have been focused too much on symptom solutions and not enough on addressing the root cause of their difficulties: family and community breakdown and the untreated trauma in young people as a result. In addition, with the competitive funding landscape, we viewed our different agencies as rivals, instead of fostering collaboration between us. Overall, the current system does not consider long-term outcomes for youth – being merely reactive rather than proactive in terms of potential results from any given program or initiative. The voices of those young people served by us were heard loud and clear: they sought a safe environment where they would not be forced to rehash traumatic stories every time support was needed while also receiving a consistent continuum care that adheres to similar ethical principles across all organizations involved with providing assistance.


Brain Development

Research establishes that the frontal cortex and reasoning are of the brain continue to develop until the age of 25 in healthy resilient brains. This development can be altered or slowed if a youth is in crisis, and we cannot presume a fully reasoning adult brain just because someone is over 18. In addition, children and youth often have difficulty understanding what has happened to them in traumatic situations, and the ways they react can be highly shame-based and disruptive to their brain development. This often also negatively affects their ability to have healthy relationships with themselves and others.

Therefore, placing chronological expectations on young people who are the age of “adulthood” (18) in our systems, before their rational brains have fully developed, and expecting them to find benefit and support through the same systems that service adults, with the expectation that they have all of the life skills and tools as those adults, is setting the young person and the system up for failure.


Establishment of Community Youth Support Centers

One of the priority Youth Agency Collaboration innovations is creating small, community-based 24/7 crisis intervention, intake, and holistic wellbeing and life skills assessment services that are co-located with resource hubs for youth across Edmonton. This would eliminate many of the immediate gaps for youth in crisis in ensuring that any young person would have a save place to get help in their community and not be turned away.


24/7 Help (In communities where youth live)

  • Crisis identification, diversion, triage, de-escalation, and stabilization
  • Emergency and reserved beds (ideally 12 or fewer)
  • Holistic wellbeing and life skills assessment and entry into the Youth Agency Collaboration connected communities of care


Resource and services hub (Monday-Friday)

  • Onsite medical clinic
  • Onsite mental health support
  • Housing connections
  • Cultural and identity supports
  • Employment and education connections
  • Programming and recreation


Currently, YESS is demonstrating the first Community Youth Support Centre. Because the need is so great and the strategy is so compelling, we have leaned in to creating the first site to demonstrate and evaluate the coordinated intake and holistic assessment components. In June 2023, YESS consolidated all of our existing programming, recreation, mental health, and primary medical care into the Whyte Avenue location, alongside our 24/7 access to emergency beds and crisis intervention. Our intent is to address the immediate need we are seeing for youth in crisis and build a strong evaluation model for the Community Youth Support Centre that is scalable and repeatable across the city and potentially across the province.

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The Importance of Indigenous History Month

The Importance of Indigenous History Month, and the Impact of Creating Connections to Culture for Indigenous Youth

This topic is deeply personal for me. I am an Indigenous Plains Cree Woman from Frog Lake First Nation, Treaty 6 Territory. I grew up in a constant state of feeling alone, and alien in my own community. I grew up in Edmonton, off of reserve, and have felt that deep disconnection to culture every day. I am a product of deep roots of colonialism and abuse to my people. Growing up, there were no youth organizations fighting for connections to culture to be made available to youth living in the “City.” My first identity statement didn’t find its way home to me until I became an adult and started my own healing journey. I was brought up to think I was Métis and not First Nations because my own family, at one point, was escaping the Residential School System. That is powerful to acknowledge and accept as my own history started to unfold before me.

This is just one personal account of how the History of Indigenous People is still deeply felt today. There are still those who feel that loss of identity, that loss of culture, and that feeling of disconnection to our communities. Then there is the global feeling of our Nations being disconnected from the land we were given by Creator to take care of. My own connection to Mother Earth is broken and has been broken for many generations. I know I am not alone in this global feeling of “brokenness” and “loss”; I know that there is still more work that is needed.

Indigenous History Month is vital in the movement to educate ourselves, our allies, our newcomers, and those who may not know our history otherwise. I was told from an Elder once that: “To know where we are going, we must first understand where we have been.” There are many activists in our communities fighting every day to ensure we as Indigenous People have representation in these discussions about Reconciliation and the Reclaiming of the Land. I do my part by educating myself and listening to those who have come before me. Indigenous History Month is that catalyst that reminds me every year to be better and do better for my people. Now in my role at work I have been given this beautiful opportunity to listen to those voices who will come after me.

The youth we walk beside every day are our future. They will change the world if given the opportunity. So how can we lift our youth up? How can we build that mountain higher so they have a better view than the generations before them? Well, I think we do that together. As a collective we work hard to ensure Access to Culture and Traditional Ways of Living are available for ALL Indigenous youth, not just those living on Reserves and Settlements. We CREATE the Safe Spaces for youth to engage in ceremony. Walk beside them as they start their own healing journey. Start those conversations about our Indigenous History and empower them to find their voice in the conversation.

As more awareness happens to the collective mind of the world we, as individuals, can do our part by taking the step to educate ourselves so we can support the education of our youth. There is still more work to be done, but today, you can do your part to EMPOWER the youth you work with to start that journey home.

About Shantell:

  • Cycle Breaker. I was the first in my family to graduate from high school with a diploma, and the first to attend a university and graduate from post-secondary
  • I am the Mother of three future Cycle Breakers, two dogs, and a cat.
  • Why I do what I do? The youth are the future! Why not do my part and invest in the future. They will change the world if given the opportunity.
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Pride at YESS

“I am passionate about making YESS as safe and as inclusive as it can be for the queer and trans youth who walk through our doors. It is important for these youth to feel like they have access to compassionate and supportive staff as they discover their identity, sometimes for the first time in a judgement-free environment. Doing my best to offer that space consistently inspires me. There are no words to describe the feeling of making someone comfortable enough to be themselves!”

Emilie Duchesne
Resource Worker

Emilie was included in the 2019 Top 30 Under 30: The Gender Equality Edition by the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation for her work with YESS, Comité Francoqueer de l’Ouest, and Francophonie Jeunesse de l’Alberta (FJA)

Being a safe support is one of the most important things we do for our youth.

How do we do that?

Our staff understand and are trained in 2SLGBTQ+ issues and offer non-judgmental relationship building.

All YESS program spaces are gender neutral, including washrooms and dorms. Gendered spaces can be difficult for youth in transition, and are also excluding to non-binary people. Removing barriers of gender wherever possible makes sense.

We have in-house programs for 2SLGBTQ+ youth and allies that provide spaces to be vulnerable and grow. We have a Mxn’s Group and Womxn’s Group that acknowledge the importance of gender identity and do not exclude trans people.

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Meet the YESS Trauma Care Team

This story with our Trauma Care Team was originally published in our Winter 2019 newsletter.

In 2018, we updated our vision to focus on walking beside traumatized youth on their journeys towards healing. In 2019, that vision came closer into focus with the introduction of our own internal Trauma Care Team and we want to introduce you to the incredible folks doing the work of helping our youth heal.

Marcia East has a Master’s in Counselling and Social Work and worked with children, youth, and parents for 12 years in Jamaica. When she moved to Canada in 2015, she started working at YESS in our transitional housing program. In her newest role as part of the Trauma Care Team, Marcia facilitates group and family support sessions.

Bethany Zelent has a Master’s of Counselling and Psychology. For the past four years she has worked as an addictions counsellor and she also has experience working with vulnerable populations and people transitioning out of homelessness. Bethany facilitates individual therapy sessions.

Bethany, you were totally new to the YESS team when you started a few months ago. What brought you to YESS?

After working for so long in addictions it was really inspiring to see people reclaim their life after sometimes twenty, thirty years struggling with addiction, but it was also a little disheartening that people had lost so much of their lives to addiction. I wanted to focus more on prevention, working with people in the early stages because I saw with the women I was working with if they had had intervention in and around the time when the addiction started that they could have been saved a lot of pain. So that was a huge motivation for me to focus more on kids and youth. Also seeing the limbo that youth are in in terms of accessing services. A lot of times they are either too young for services or not bad enough—there’s this weird line where you have to have a certain number of struggles but not so bad that you’re outside an agency’s scope of practice.

How do you feel your work contributes to the YESS vision of walking beside traumatized youth on their journeys towards healing?

BZ: That, to me, is the pinnacle of what we do. I think one of the key words in there for me is “beside,” that we’re not behind, we’re not in front of, and that goes along with our own therapeutic model that the client is the expert in their own life.

ME: Being an ally to youth is a significant part of my own vision in working with people from difficult realities. It is of utmost importance to remember that the population I work with have experiences which are rooted in trauma and, therefore, their behaviours will reflect that truth. I am cognizant of the space that I create for them – one that will facilitate safety and care and encourage movement towards finding the true self.

BZ: There are symptomologies of their traumatized experiences. And that’s what we really target: that trauma is the problem, behaviour is not. Behaviour is a symptom of the trauma. We can do behavioural techniques all day long and they might work on the outside, but there won’t be lasting change because the tree is still rotten. The foundation of it is still trauma. Trauma finds really creative ways to express itself in all sorts of ways.

Marcia, in your role in leading and facilitating group sessions, how have you seen the program evolve over the last few months?

ME: Initially, it was very slow in starting. Now it is becoming a little more stable as group sessions are being offered in the residential programs and youth are warming up to the idea.

Bethany, how have you seen your side of the trauma program—individual counselling—evolve since it started?

BZ: I think there was a healthy level of skepticism from youth at the beginning. The youth have so many reasons not to trust me and I view that as my role, that I have to prove myself as trustworthy. Since we first started there has been a huge level of acceptance from the youth and the staff working together in that. The youth see going to therapy as a viable option for them; they don’t see it as something they have to go somewhere else for. It has become much more normalized, just like going to the doctor is here, just like getting their ID, just like going to the employment program, it’s a very normal thing. One of the best things with therapy, and this is outside of YESS as well, is word-of-mouth advertising. It’s very powerful. I notice that when a few youth would come, more youth would be interested. That is something that’s really important too is for them to be able to say, “I see a change in my friend. I would like that change as well.” I think there’s more openness to taking down the stigma for mental health as well, being able to ask for the help they need, and our regular presence here helps them know that we’re the trauma team.

What’s something you wish the community knew about YESS youth?

BZ: I think one of the biggest things is to remind them that they are youth. That a lot of the behavioural expressions we see are really, really normal for an adolescent to do. It is very normal. Oftentimes because [YESS youth] are in a position of being independent, we kind of project adult expectations onto them, but they physiologically don’t have the brain development to be able to meet those expectations because they are teenagers. A lot of the behavioural expressions that we see like substance use, like stealing—those are all very normal for any adolescent across any socioeconomic status and we cannot hold youth to a higher standard than what their brain can occupy. We certainly can’t hold traumatized individuals to a standard that is higher than what they can actively do and we can’t hold traumatized youth to a standard that’s beyond what their capacity is. I think that’s what I would focus the most on is that they’re still adolescents.

ME: Also that our youth are not “choosing” to remain in difficult situations. They are being impacted by the traumas of their past and they are doing their best to cope with these realities, and are struggling to be resilient despite their history.

Is there a particular remarkable experience you’ve have at YESS?

ME: My most recent remarkable experience comes from working with a youth who struggles with anger issues. I am encouraged by his determination to summon his inner resources for the work he is doing.  I am also inspired by the effort and energy he is investing and note how the successes he experiences serve to build his self-efficacy and to further strengthen his resolve.

BZ: In starting therapy I usually ask the client how they feel and then I ask them again at the end so we can track if there’s a change and how our process is going. I started one session with a client who said he felt suffocated from anxiety. He indicated that there was a lot of tension in his chest. We ended up having a two and a half hour session and at the end he said that was the most relaxed he had ever been in his entire life and that he had this feeling of calm where there had been tension. I don’t take any credit for that whatsoever. I think that’s primarily his own work. It is really cool to be a witness to people’s journeys and processes. That he was able to sit with himself for those two and a half hours and attend to himself and be present in a way that he is normally trying to escape. That is amazing.

In the wake of the  COVID-19 crisis, there have been some updates to the way the Trauma Care Team works with youth.

The manner in which we offer therapeutic and supportive services have primarily shifted from face-to-face to virtual modalities. For example, individual and group sessions are being carried out through means of video and telephone media, instead of meeting in a physical space. Currently, we have ceased walk-in therapy and new client intakes, as we are trying to figure out the best approach in facilitating these needs within our current context of operations. Program visits have also shifted to using online means, in reaching youth as well.

The difficulty of using online platforms for therapeutic purposes is that it decreases the ability to support youth in a therapeutic space and provide immediate trauma support for panic attacks, emotional regulation and more.  The youth are not able to connect as well, via video conference or teleconferencing, which doesn’t allow for the full support they may need in the moment.  It is also not easy to build up trust and relationships via video or telephone and therefore, even with this technology available, we are having to adapt our delivery and services to help support the youth who need it.

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What is trauma and how do we heal?

by Jessica Day, Director of Program Innovations at YESS

Working in the field of trauma support is hard; my friends and family are often confused about what I do and what trauma is. I am sure you are asking the same question: what exactly is trauma and how can YESS actually help youth heal? To answer this question, I ask you to close your eyes and imagine standing in your living room, gazing out your living room window into your community. Imagine the safety and security you feel around being in your own home, in the neighbourhood you have come to love and enjoy. Imagine that a person approaches your window—this person could be a friend, family member, a neighbour, a teacher, or a complete stranger. Now imagine that this person breaks your living room window! It could be that they are breaking into your house to steal something, or they could be trying to scare you, or they could just be breaking the window for their own fun. Either way, your window is now broken, your floor is covered in glass and you are no longer protected from the elements outside (noise, insects, animals, weather, etc). We both know that the window breaking wasn’t your fault.  It scared you and left a mess on the floor and has left you exposed and vulnerable, and none of this was your fault.

You have a choice now: you can avoid cleaning up the glass and replacing the window because this wasn’t your fault or you can use the tools in your house to sweep up the glass and find a way to replace the window. If the glass is not cleaned up, you will get hurt walking around and existing in your house. If your family and friends come over, they could get hurt by the glass as well. Your house will start to deteriorate because of the weather coming in and you will not feel safe or protected. If you clean up the glass, you may need to borrow a broom or get help vacuuming up the pieces. You may need to bring in an expert to help you replace the window. And you can never guarantee that someone won’t break the window again.  But at least you’ll know who to call, what tools you need, and which experts can be brought in to replace the window again. It wasn’t your fault the window broke, but it is your responsibility to clean up and repair your safety, security, and home.

This is the trauma our youth face daily. It is not their fault, but they are left with the responsibility to heal, integrate into the community, and successfully sustain their independence. When the youth experience their trauma, their brains and emotions are not developed enough to know what tools, what experts, and what next steps to heal look like. They are frozen in an emotional survival mode that they use to protect themselves from the confusion, the hurt, and their lack of safety.

Here at YESS, and within every youth-serving agency, we work to help the youth feel that safety to begin to understand their trauma. As they do, we can help them access healthy tools and experts to begin to rebuild relationships and a sense of safety. When youth are given the time and support to transition through their trauma, they are able to see success and growth within themselves and understand their responsibilities and possibilities. With these successes, youth are able to heal and the cycle of support will continue within themselves, their new neighbourhoods, and eventually within our city as a whole.

As a community member, I ask that you take the time to really process what trauma means and how it affects youth, families, and communities. We cannot do this work alone—it takes a village to raise a child and it takes a community to heal from trauma. You can help. Your time, your donations, and your voice can all be tools our youth can use to help clean up their home and rebuild a better future.

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