Mental Health Awareness Month: Highlighting Our Unique Approach to Health Care

When a young person first arrives at Covenant House they are often stressed, tired and have experienced some form of trauma from abuse, neglect, or family breakdown. Whatever the circumstance, each young person still arrives with their own hopes, dreams, and talents.

And while the challenges faced by youth experiencing homelessness and trafficking have always been complex, we have seen how inflation, a lack of affordable housing and the opioid crisis are disproportionately affecting the young people we serve. Shelters continue to be filled to capacity, and youth are staying longer in our shelter and face greater mental health and addiction challenges than ever before.

Our team continues to step up to support all of the young people that seek our support.  Health and wellness are woven into our approach every step of the way: from the moment a young person shows up, to connecting the person with specialized staff on our health team, to working on their plan for independent community living. Each individual has their own specific needs and our team takes care in every interaction to ensure a young person’s mental and physical well-being are top priority.

At Covenant House, we have a specialized team of staff to work with young people using substances, mental health counsellors to help youth resolve short-term issues and counselling staff to help youth build positive relationships with family and other key people in their lives.  Our on-site medical centre is often the first point of entry for youth coming through our doors, which is why we take great care with first impressions at the clinic.

As Elisa Simpson, the Manager of Health Care Services at Covenant House explains, “Our health care clinic is unique because as soon as you walk through the door you’ll be offered coffee, tea, a bite to eat, and we give you a place to sleep if you’ve been out on the street all night. We really try to meet people’s basic needs first.  Of course things like medicine and bloodwork and tests are important to health outcomes.  But the most important place that healing happens is in supportive relationships and that’s really what we strive to create.”

Precious Myers, a mental health counsellor at Covenant House, has noticed many more youth showing up in the past few years experiencing anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and substance use challenges.  She points out that many of the complex mental health challenges she sees in youth can be linked to trauma. “Trauma does not necessarily manifest as feelings; rather, it manifests as reactions. Many of the reactions we may notice are youth withdrawing from programs, dropping out of school, isolating themselves in their rooms.”

Covenant House offers a range of services to address all aspects of every young person’s mental health and well-being. Precious, for example, is a specialised counsellor working with youth to focus on short-term solutions that might involve changing some habits or finding a way to problem solve a concern that has been on their minds.

And Amy Weiner is an occupational therapist.  It is rare for youth shelters to offer the services of an occupational therapist, but we believe it is a critical part of supporting youth and helping them make a successful transition to independent living.  “Trauma can impact the brain in several ways, some of which can be memory challenges and sensory processing,” Amy says.  “This could make it very difficult for someone to stay on top of tasks such as remembering appointments or navigating transit.  I work with youth to develop strategies to help them when they are out in the community.   For example, I had one young person start using noise-reducing earplugs when they go outside to reduce the impact noise has on them, so they feel less overwhelmed.”

It's one-size-fits-one solutions like that which illustrate our approach to health and well-being: we meet every youth where they are on their journey and help them move towards their bright future.

As Precious puts it: “Every encounter I have with a young person gives me hope because their presence demonstrates that they believe in themselves to some degree and see a possibility for change in their future.  ‘Can we talk?’ are the sweetest words to me because those words show that youth are hopeful and ready to take the next step toward change.”