Youth engagement

What is youth engagement?

Youth engagement is a whole-community approach to mental health care. It’s an active and ongoing process that embeds youth voice at all levels. It allows for the prioritization of practices that offer youth opportunities to develop supportive relationships, learn skills, work on issues that are important to them and contribute to social change. 

Youth engagement happens on a continuum, and there’s always room to move to more genuine levels of engagement. As you progress along the continuum, young people’s roles shift towards increased levels of decision-making and leadership. It’s important to distinguish between dis-engaging activities that view young people as passive recipients of services and engaging activities that recognize youth as equal partners in their care. As you consider your coalition’s youth engagement initiatives, think about:

  • What level of engagement is appropriate?
  • What's the best way of facilitating engagement?
  • What strategies can you put in place to increase engagement?

Why is youth engagement important?

Youth engagement is linked to positive outcomes for young people, adults, agencies and communities. There are many benefits to engaging youth in your community’s suicide prevention initiative:

  • Youth engagement serves as a protective factor against suicide ideation1 and suicide risk.2It offers the chance to develop important decision making and problem solving skills, develop meaningful relationships, and boost self-esteem, all of which are also protective factors against suicide ideation.3
  • Youth engagement improves mental health through the development of life skills.4 For example, youth engaging in after school activities show lower rates of depressed mood 5 and meaningful youth engagement in mental health treatment increases the development of key recovery skills such as self-regulation, effective coping, and understanding of self-factors related to recovery 6,3
  • Youth engagement promotes resiliency by building on youth strengths, including energy, enthusiasm and creativity. Research highlights that regular meaningful activity youth can look forward to, may enhance their will to live in the face of risk factors. 7,8,9,7, 3,10,8
  • Youth engagement helps youth develop life skills, including increased self-esteem and self-confidence 11, enhanced leadership skills 11, increased sense of responsibility,12 reduction in social isolation/creates more social connections 13,2, reduction in delinquent and risky behaviour 14, reduction in substance use and smoking, 15,16 improvement in academics and dropout rates. 13,17
  • Youth engagement creates buy-in from youth involved in your youth suicide prevention initiative because they’re directly involved in its development and operations. This empowers youth, enabling them to make a difference, 18 while at the same time helps build communities that are better able to support the youth and families that live in them. 18
  • Learn more about the benefits of youth engagement, by visiting the Centre’s Youth Engagement toolkit.

What are the guiding principles to engaging youth?

Youth engagement is grounded in a set of guiding principles that inform how you work with young people to ensure that it’s authentic and meaningful. Working from both evidence and their own personal experiences of being engaged, the Youth Advisors at the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health (the Centre) have established seven guiding principles of youth engagement:

  • value youth as community assets
  • commit to participatory leadership
  • build authentic relationships
  • strive for health equity
  • use a whole community approach
  • meet youth where they're at
  • put safety first

How can your community meaningfully engage youth?

Now that you have an understanding of what youth engagement is, its benefits and the guiding principles behind it, how can you ensure you’re doing it right and in the most meaningful way?

Before plunging into youth engagement, you need to assess your readiness.

You should understand your coalition’s current capacity to engage young people. The Youth Engagement Readiness Assessment Tool (available shortly) can help you to do just that. After completing the tool, you will have a snapshot of where you are. This will help you determine where you would like to be, and co-create a plan for change with youth. This tool can help you track your coalition’s progress as you implement youth engagement strategies and identify areas to build and grow.

Embed it in your culture.

Youth engagement isn’t about introducing just a single program or group. There’s no quick and easy checklist for youth engagement; it’s an ongoing, dynamic process. Engaging youth should become an integral part of everything you do and means embracing young people’s ideas and perspectives at multiple levels. It’s equally important to ensure you’re reaching out to all youth including marginalized youth and those who may already experience social isolation, such as LGBTQ youth, youth with disabilities, rural, racialized and newcomer youth, and First Nations, Inuit and Métis youth. This will increase the likelihood that these populations benefit from the initiatives you are designing with them and for them.

Look at the opportunities to build youth engagement into your initiative.

There are opportunities (openings) to build youth engagement into all youth suicide prevention initiatives and at every level of decision-making in your organization, network, or coalition. Within the context of child and youth mental health, openings for youth engagement generally fall within the following broad categories: treatment, advocacy and education, research and evaluation, and governance and policy.

In the context of child and youth mental health and youth suicide prevention/youth life promotion, advocacy and education offers young people the opportunity to express their perspectives with the aim of shifting policy and creating systemic change. Youth advocacy encompasses the use of education, communication, leadership skills, and evidence to make a compelling case for change. 19 Youth are the experts on their own experience and bring valuable insight into issues that matter to them, such as youth suicide. These struggles can spark a desire to speak out, raise awareness and help others experiencing similar challenges. Youth can be powerful advocates, influencing change within political, economic and social systems 20.

What does successful youth engagement in advocacy and education look like?

  • Youth are engaged in their communities and specifically for youth suicide prevention, would be involved in the co-creation of youth suicide prevention action plans to influence decision-makers and create system change.
  • Youth are supported to safely share their stories or experiences with mental health issues to increase awareness and promote social change.
  • Young people have a voice in influencing youth suicide prevention initiatives in their community

Check out the Centre’s Youth Engagement toolkit for more practical ways of engaging youth in each of these areas.

Co-evaluation and co-research with young people strengthens the research process, increasing relevance, ownership and collective action. Youth can play important roles as co-evaluators and co-researchers. With support to acquire the skills to participate meaningfully, young people can strengthen the research process, increase relevance, ownership and collective action.

What does successful youth engagement in research and evaluation look like?

  • Youth are engaged as co-evaluators to determine how well youth suicide prevention YSP initiatives apply resources, meet outcomes and influence target audiences.
  • Youth are engaged as co-researchers to identify and define issues and questions, collect and analyze data and take social action.

Check out the Centre’s Youth Engagement toolkit for more practical ways of engaging youth in each of these areas.

Youth can play an important role in the governance of organizations, including making decisions, co-developing policies and procedures and influencing issues that affect their lives. 21 For youth suicide prevention coalitions, engaging youth in governance provides an opportunity to get direct feedback and insight into the effectiveness of your coalition’s youth suicide prevention initiative and strategic action plan, strengthen the relationship between the organizations involved and the community 22, and develop young people’s leadership skills.12,21 For this to work, adults will need to appreciate the assets that youth bring and share the decision-making power.

What does successful youth engagement in governance and policy look like?

  • Youth are equitably represented in governance structures (board of directors or parallel structures).
  • Youth are engaged in the co-creation and implementation of policies and procedures.

Check out the Centre’s Youth Engagement toolkit for more practical ways of engaging youth in each of these areas.

Now what?

Try mapping out and reflecting on your current youth engagement activities happening

Now that you have an idea of the various openings youth can be engaged in, you can identify where there may be gaps. What already exists that you can build from? Are the various organizations in your coalition engaging youth in their advisory committees, or working groups? How can you encourage more youth across your coalition or within organizations? If youth are engaged and represented, are their thoughts and ideas being given equal weight to adult members of the group?

Creating structures for safely engaging youth

For youth engagement to occur, structures need to be created in your coalition and member organizations before you can begin to work together with youth in developing or implementing your community’s action plan for addressing youth suicide. Most importantly, you need to ensure there’s a safety net for the youth engaged in your coalition.

Additional resources

The Centre of Excellence for Youth Engagement (CEYE) brings together the expertise of youth, youth service providers, academic researchers and policy makers to identify, build and implement models of effective practice for meaningfully engaging youth and to document the results.

The Wisdom2Action (W2A) is a national knowledge mobilization (KMb) initiative that supports researchers, community based organizations, educators, policy makers, and others working to improve the mental health and well-being of vulnerable children and youth.

mindyourmind is an award-winning, non-profit mental health program that engages youth, emerging adults and the professionals who serve them to co-develop reliable and relevant resources.

The Jack Project  is a charitable organization that aims to open up the conversation about mental health by engaging youth in the development and delivery mental health promotion initiatives.

The New Mentality  is a network of youth-facilitated groups from across Ontario who collaborate with partner agencies to reduce the stigma around mental health in their communities.

Your Life Counts includes information and resources related to suicide prevention for youth and their families.

YouthNet Ottawa is a for youth, by youth, mental health promotion and intervention program that offers alternative support services for youth.

Youth Social Infrastructure Collaborative is a network and community of practice supporting a strong, resilient and equitable youth organizing field in Ontario.

YouthRex is a youth research and evaluation exchange meant to help mobilize research about youth, increase understanding of positive youth development and invest in continuous quality improvement in Ontario’s youth programming.


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