Workshop provided insight into the existing gaps in knowledge and services for mental health, and how to create meaningful change for Canadian youth

For over two decades, Brain Canada has set out to better understand the brain in sickness and in health. When it comes to mental wellbeing, the national non-profit organization recognizes that developing a greater understanding of youth mental health and investing in critical research is the best way to build a solid foundation for the future.

Several studies have acknowledged many potential long-term consequences to mental illness in youth that go beyond the brain, such as health-related disability, decreased educational and employment outcomes, and increased rates of substance use and criminality. Despite these negative impacts, research on mental health and addiction remains scarce.

In March 2020, just days before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brain Canada joined forces with the RBC Foundation to host a workshop that would provide insight into the existing gaps in knowledge and services when it comes to mental health, as well as a deeper understanding of how we can work together to create meaningful change for youth in Canada.

“As a national convenor for brain research, Brain Canada is uniquely placed to connect diverse stakeholders in the field of youth mental health to not only identify the greatest challenges, but to initiate the shift from raising awareness to taking action,” says Dr. Viviane Poupon, President and CEO at Brain Canada. “Through this workshop, Brain Canada’s goal was to engage youth to outline key priorities, opportunities and approaches that could maximize positive impact for people in Canada.”

youth mental health

Alyssa Frampton from Wisdom2Action (left) and Jill Fairbank from Canadian Centre for Substance Use (right) presenting a program for trauma-informed, harm reduction detox services at the 2020 RBC-Brain Canada Youth Mental Health Workshop

By working with Wisdom2Action, an organization specializing in youth mental health engagement, and with guidance from the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), the RBC-Brain Canada Youth Mental Health Workshop brought together an inspiring and diverse group of individuals to connect and deliberate on the state of mental illness in Canada as it pertains to youth.

“From an event standpoint the workshop was one of the best I have ever participated in,” says Chris Maksylewicz, Executive Director at  The Erika Legacy Foundation. “From the first day, it was different. The people that were put forth were BIPOC, part of the LGBTQ+ community, and it was a younger crowd. Learning from this diverse and inclusive group was incredibly meaningful to our organization, and it informed much of the work we’ve been doing since.”

For two days, participants, partners and experts from across sectors and disciplines gathered to reflect on key areas that were collectively deemed to be in dire need of support, funding and research.

“Out of the days I spent with the cohort, The Erika Legacy Foundation retained multiple takeaways. However, there were three points that really stood out: access to technology and a better understanding of how to use it as a tool to reach youth; the need to reach youth in rural and Indigenous communities more quickly and at a deeper level; and how to empower families so they feel comfortable making mental health a greater part of their daily lives.”

Along with the importance of bringing child, youth and family voices to research and practice, a common theme that surfaced was ‘equity above all’. Many made the case for a more intersectional approach to mental health advocacy and targeted interventions so as to reach all youth, particularly those who face increased barriers to health care due to their sexual orientation, gender identity, and racial or cultural background.

“Because of what we learned at the workshop, I can say our Foundation has pivoted to focus our efforts on being proactive, predictive and preventative,” explains Maksylewicz. “The event helped us solidify a couple of initiatives that we are working on right now that have the potential to support the mental health of millions of youth.”

Almost immediately after the learning exchange, the world quickly shifted to respond to COVID-19. With even less access to health care, the various gaps, challenges and vulnerabilities that were discussed during the Brain Canada-RBC Youth Mental Health Workshop have since been exacerbated. Ensuring that we engage with a diverse group of stakeholders to co-create, fund and evaluate responsive and effective youth mental health approaches has never been more important.

Brain Canada recently launched a Mental Health Initiative that seeks to continue filling these gaps by funding innovative research that will lead to long-term solutions for today’s youth mental health challenge, as well as the aftermath of the pandemic.

To support Brain Canada’s Mental Health Research Initiative, visit