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A series on mental health in the Pontiac Part 1:Youth

Pontiac youth facing significant mental health challenges post-pandemic

by Camilla Faragalli
Pontiac
Feb. 19, 2024
The MRC Pontiac Youth Council hosted a well-attended forum last week in an attempt to raise awareness and encourage community members to speak openly about the growing mental health needs of youth in the region.
The forum, which took place over two days, was hosted in French at l’École secondaire Sieur-de-Coulonge (ESSC) in Mansfield and Pontefract on Thursday, and in English at Pontiac High School (PHS) in Shawville on Friday.
“The previous youth council before covid had really implied that mental health was the most important thing that they wanted to focus on, especially youth mental health,” youth council president Léa Gagnon told
THE EQUITY.
She said the current youth council agreed that addressing the issue of youth mental health should be its top priority.
“I feel like everybody, especially after covid, has faced some sort of mental struggle,” Gagnon said. “So we really put importance on that and we made the forum happen.”
Falling during Quebec’s annual school perseverance week, the forums were attended by hundreds of students from ESSC, PHS and visiting school Dr. Wilbert Keon.
Both events featured an hour-long presentation from multidisciplinary artist and motivational speaker, David Houle.
“I came here to share some tools that I’ve learned since high school surrounding mental health, because I believe that since the pandemic, there’s been a bit of a cry for help from students,” Houle told THE EQUITY.
The post-pandemic struggle
PHS principal Dr. Terry Burns said the consensus among educational leaders is that COVID-19 had serious impacts on student life.
“There have been changes in the environment, changes to brain development for a whole lot of different reasons and it does affect the experience the students are having in school,” he said.
Megan Lunam is a youth worker at Le Jardin Éducatif du Pontiac, a non-profit organization offering rehabilitation, reintegration and reorientation services to young people in the region.
She works with youth who are attending high school, as well as with those who, for a variety of reasons, are not.
“Our numbers do continue to grow year to year since we introduced the in-school support service, and as well with the creation of the Alternative Suspension program that supports youth from both the French and the English school boards in the Pontiac,” she said.
“The most common issues I have been seeing lately are youth who are expressing feelings of loneliness, anxiousness, and sadness,” Lunam told THE EQUITY, adding that she has seen a greater number of youth struggling with anxiety, in particular, since the pandemic.
While Lunam says she believes more support for youth and their parents will always be needed, she cited several local supports for young people including L’Entourelle, AutonHomme, Connexions and CISSSO’s 8-1-1 phone line, as well as Kids Help Phone, which youth can either text or call.
“A lot of the time they [youth] just need someone to listen to them with no judgement, to support them at their worst and cheer them on at their best, I think to just not feel so alone with some of their big, dark, not-always-fun feelings and thoughts,” she said.
Lunam said that Les Jardins does try to help as many youth as they can, even if only to connect them with the right support from the above-mentioned organizations.
Erica Tomkinson is one of two social service workers offering mental health services, specifically for substance use intervention and prevention, to the entire Western Quebec School Board.
Tomkinson, who has held her position for 15 years, is responsible for seeing students at Pontiac High School two days per week, and at Dr. Wilbert Keon school two days per month.
She believes a lot of youth are overwhelmed with all of the stressors in their life, and lacking the coping strategies to deal with them.
“There’s academic stressors, there’s familial stressors, there’s economic stressors, there’s the desire to perform, there’s just adolescence in gener al with puberty and raging hormones . . . they have a lot on their plate all at the same time,” she explained.
Rural challenges
Beyond the challenges that have arisen from the prolonged isolation youth experienced during the pandemic, there are additional factors contributing to youth mental health struggles in the Pontiac.
Tomkinson said the lack of support services in the region makes it difficult for youth, many of whom are already feeling isolated, to get the help they need.
She gave the example of making a call to social services by way of Quebec’s general healthcare 8-1-1 phone line.
“They have a quick initial response, and you’re able to speak with somebody, but sometimes what happens is the followthrough just isn’t there because of the lack of employment or the lack of service,” Tomkinson said, adding that accessing services in English can sometimes be another challenge altogether.
Sid Sharpe is a member of the MRC Pontiac youth council and a student at PHS.
They say they know a peer who was recently referred by a social worker to see a psychologist, only to find the wait-list they had been placed on was three years long.
“It’s crazy. I think we need more support, and more than just hotlines,” Sharpe said, explaining that they felt that while helpful, hotlines seemed like they may be impersonal, without the deeper connection of a face-to-face interaction.
“People need that support, and living here, sometimes you don’t get the support that you might need,” they said.
Youth council members also raised the heightened potential for stigma around discussions of mental health in rural areas.
“It [mental health] goes so unrecognized around here,” said youth council member Ollie Côté.
“It’s such an isolated environment, it’s such a small town. It’s in the middle of nowhere, there’s not a lot of diversity here. I think we’re lacking exposure,” Côté said.
Tomkinson said that while the stigma in rural communities around mental health is not necessarily different from that which exists in urban centres, the lack of diversity in rural areas can make it feel that way.
“I think the stigma is just more apparent because there aren’t as many people with different viewpoints. In an urban area you’re always going to have different perspectives. In a rural area there’s generally going to be fewer lanes of thought,” she said.
Sharpe thinks the isolation that comes with living in a small town can contribute to youth mental health issues.
“Life is difficult growing up here, a little bit,” they said. “Everyone has different problems.and different barriers and different obstacles that they’re dealing with, but I think that we all have that same sense of wanting to belong and wanting to be understood.”
Stigma decreasing
As Lunam sees it, while the pandemic undoubtedly had negative impacts on youth mental health in the Pontiac, she has since seen community members become more comfortable speaking about their challenges openly.

“There has been so much changing in the past few years to promote mental health in the Pontiac, so I do think the stigma is decreasing,” Lunam said.
Tomkinson echoed this optimism, noting that while youth face ever-evolving struggles with their mental health, she would like to think that, “societally, we are making leaps and bounds.”
“A lot of people were feeling the effects of it [the pandemic] with their mental health. I know I was,” Sharpe said.
“I think that it became a good way to talk about what we’re struggling with. I think that during the lockdown and pandemic, it was a perfect time to have that self-reflection.”
Sharpe believes that parents, teachers, and any other caring or concerned adult should have an open mind, and be willing to speak with their students, children, or youth in the area. They said they hope that discussions around mental health continue to become less stigmatized in the future, adding that they hope the youth forum makes it a little easier for local students to “start a conversation.”
“Because the first step is really hard,” they said. “Asking for help.”
‘You cannot change a kid, you can just inspire them’
David Houle’s presentation each day of the mental health forum began with a series of back-handsprings, and was interspersed with other forms of acrobatics, dance and vocals.
The vivacious 35-year-old told students that while he has enjoyed a successful career as an artist, including as a lead performer with internationally acclaimed circus, Cirque du Soleil, and as a guest dancer for the Canadian Opera Company, he is no stranger to mental health challenges.
“I really struggled in high school, I was bullied often, and after losing my mother my mental health wasn’t the best,” Houle shared during his presentation, noting that it was largely thanks to the encouragement he received from a teacher in his final year of high school that he was able to combat his own struggles with mental health, and turn his life around.
“I tell them [students], if I did it, just a small town guy from Outaouais, they can do it. I never thought I’d have the privilege to do what I do today.”
“You cannot change a kid, you can just inspire them,” he later told THE EQUITY.
Houle appeared to inspire ESSC student Talira Savard, who attended the forum on Thursday.
“I love dance, and the fact that he [Houle] put himself out there in front of a bunch of adolescents that judge a lot made me feel confident about myself, even though it was him that was on the stage,” Savard said.
“I love the fact that he didn’t care about what everybody else thought. And that he was confident in his skin,” she added.
Savard says she thinks the youth mental health forum was a good idea, as she believes many of her peers can relate to Houle’s struggle.
“This day and age, everybody is judged, everybody is down, everybody feels like they’re trapped, but at one point you have to climb back up,” she said.
“That’s the hardest thing to do, for every individual. For some it’s harder, and they need a little boost,” Savard added.
“This is the little boost that some people need.”

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