Improving Youth Mental Health Through Social-Recreational Peer Support (a grassroots model)

Aiming to increase overall mental wellness in youth through a combination of peer support and social recreation that encourages young people to explore their strengths and learn wellness strategies, explore how the grass roots Just Be You (JBY) peer program through evidence-based peer support, such as peer support discussion, peer facilitated workshops, one on one peer support and social recreation activities has provided built- in protective factors for social cohesion, mental wellness, sense of purpose, interpersonal skills, self- esteem and self-efficacy, connections to resources, identified support systems, and has been able to reach youth that are isolated or facing multiple barriers.

Designed to benefit youth ages 15-25, Just Be You serves youth facing multiple barriers of isolation, stigma, finances, illness and transportation; provides early intervention for youth not currently connected with services, waitlist support for youth waiting for services, and ongoing support for those trying to maintain wellness.

Presenters and slide deck

Michele Sparling, Just Be You, Founder

Michele Sparling is a parent who continues to navigate the maze of mental health services for her family. A recognized speaker and advocate for integrated youth mental health services and family engagement, she is the originator of Just Be You, a grassroots social recreational peer to peer mental health support group for youth 15-25. A champion for mental health services, Michele is actively involved at a local, provincial and national level. She is Chair of the Frayme Family Advisory, Chair of CMHA Halton Board of Directors, Chair of the Youth and Family League for Project Nøw (a suicide prevention initiative), and an Ambassador for Children’s Mental Health Ontario. Michele is trained in family peer support, Family Engagement, Mental Health First Aid and ASIST. She is a Partner at Innovative HR and a CMHA Certified Psychological Health and Safety Advisor. Michele is on Twitter @HRisInnovative or @ShineShout, Instagram @ShineShout &

Maria Estrada, Youth Facilitator, Support House

Maria Estrada is a mental health advocate, motivational speaker and child and youth counsellor specializing in mental health and addictions. Maria has dedicated her life to raising awareness about mental health. After immigrating to Canada as a child, Maria experienced bullying, anxiety, depression and the stigma associated with mental health. After a failed suicide attempt at the age of 15, Maria realized she needed help. This led to a journey of self-advocacy, mental health diagnoses, addiction, relapse and recovery. Now, Maria uses her personal story as a way to help others. She is the recipient of the 2017 United Way Halton Hamilton Community Speaker Award and 2019 Vicky Award for Shine In Shine Out. Her story was featured in Silken Laumann’s Unsinkable project in 2019. Maria is currently writing a book in hopes to inspire others along the way.


For more information:
@shineshout on Twitter and Instagram

Key Learnings

A social recreational peer support model:

  • provides built- in protective factors for social cohesion, mental wellness, sense of purpose, interpersonal skills, self- esteem and self-efficacy and identifying support systems.
  • can reduce negative outcomes associated with poor mental health, therefore reducing the number of youth needing traditional services or experiencing crisis.

Thoughts from those with Lived/Living Expertise

What are some of the highlights?

  • The story of how the programming came to be was very impactful, and the design of the programming was youth-led.
  • Considerations around accessibility, beyond making the programming free (including transportation), was impressive.

How can information gained be used? 

  • This programming could also be used as a preventative program focused on community building since some youth struggle with mental health because of loneliness, difficulty making friends, etc.

What are the implications?

  • The information at this session is helpful in providing youth with activities and organizations they can become involved with to improve their mental health outside of the formalized system such as clinicians etc.

What would you like to know more about?

  • How youth might transition out of this programming, given that the age cut-off is 25 (which is on the lower end compared to some other youth programs that run until age 30).

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