Sometimes tragedy can motivate positive change.
The recent high-profile deaths by suicide in St. Catharines have prompted a great deal of conversation around mental health. In Niagara-on-the-Lake, they were the final impetus Pat Darte needed to launch his new initiative.
“About a year ago, I started working on a plan to bring mental health services to the youth in town,” says Darte. “I was just seeing too many lost kids, hearing too many sad stories, so I decided to do something about it.” Darte says he began consultations with various leaders in the mental health industry, including Dr. Robin Williams, Ontario’s Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health at the time.
In the spring of this year, Bethany Poltl and the Lord Mayor Youth Advisory Council were coordinating the NOTL Grade 8 Mental Health and Wellness Conference, and found a glaring gap in local health services. She sent an email to Darte regarding her disappointing search for mental health professionals in NOTL who could “address the needs of NOTL youth and their mental health.” She had been told there was no such service in town. Darte responded by speaking at the conference, and promising to make changes to benefit the mental health of young people in town.
Over on Concession 2 Road, Steffanie Bjorgan was looking at the basement of her Red Roof Retreat facility and wondering how it could be better used, given that it isn’t accessible to the retreat’s population. “It was gnawing at me,” she says. She also had some ideas mental health support bubbling in the back of her mind.
“When Pat came to me and suggested we partner on a mental wellness initiative for youth, it just felt like a perfect partnership,” says Bjorgan.
On Thanksgiving day, Darte was having a conversation about the recent suicides with Bob Mavridis and his daughter Maria Mavridis, owners of Corks Winebar & Eatery on Queen Street. Darte told them about his goal to launch a mental wellness initiative for youth in town. He asked them if they would be interested in being involved. “My dad and I just looked at each other, and we said, ‘Yes,’” says Maria, who explains there is mental illness in their immediate family. “My dad said, ‘Everyone knows someone who’s suffering — what can we do to help,’” says Maria. “We made the donation to get the initiative started,” she continues. “As the program evolves, we are committed to do the fundraising or whatever it takes to keep it growing and working.”
Other partnerships are being secured with organizations and community members for further financial investment and support.
The issue of better mental health care services for young people in NOTL has clearly been on a lot of minds.
Darte is currently announcing the “Growing Mental Wellness” initiative. A November date will soon be released for an information night with Darte, representatives from the Red Roof Retreat, and the Lord Mayor’s Youth Advisory Committee. The community will have the opportunity to learn more about the goals and objectives of this initiative, and learn ways to help make services available to those in need.
The Red Roof Retreat will provide the physical space for Growing Mental Wellness, and will handle the coordination and administration of services and programs. It will also be responsible for the clinical support for people in need of services. “We’ll be providing crisis counselling, mental health counselling and more,” says Bjorgan. “One of the first programs we’re planning to offer is safeTALK suicide prevention training,” she says. “The biggest part is we just have to start.”
The initiative will be in full operation by spring 2019, and there is a plan to have some counselling services available in the coming months.
“This is a community initiative,” says Bjorgan. “We want to hear from anyone who wants to get involved in any way.”
Poltl is in support of this initiative. “I feel that NOTL youth need a safe and welcoming environment to address any mental health curiosities they might have,” she says. “As we all can see from recent events close to home, we need to address mental health with actions, not just words. Action includes providing an accessible place for our youth where they feel they can go and are provided support free of judgment.”
Speaking specifically of that judgment, Maria says, “We need to get rid of the taboos, have open discussions — people need to talk about it and remove the stigma. The best thing we can do is to talk about it.”
Now those conversations have started to happen in NOTL.
If you would like to be involved in or support the initiative, you can contact Darte at email@example.com or Bjorgan at firstname.lastname@example.org. A website with more information is in the works.
If you are in need of immediate mental health support, there are options available for you. Pathstone Mental Health has a 24-7 crisis hotline at 1-800-263-4944. The Pathstone website also has many resources.
Distress Centre Niagara phone lines are open 24/7: 905-688-3711.
Kid’s Help Phone can be reached at 1-800-668-6868. https://kidshelpphone.ca/ is comprehensive and helpful, with a number of resources including live chat.