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KW Counselling's OK2BME program helps youth become more resilient by building community connections.

Sometimes called “coping abilities,” resiliency is the emotional capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. But experiencing sustained discrimination and exclusion can deplete such coping abilities. It contributes to higher stress levels and may lead to further mental health challenges including depression and anxiety.

LGBT+ youth especially can be affected by such discrimination: Within Waterloo Region in Ontario, 45 per cent of cisgender (those whose gender identity matches the one assigned at birth) LGBT+ high school students and 70 per cent of transgender high school students who participated in a recent OutLook study reported low self-esteem. Youth have been disproportionately impacted by the ripple effects of the pandemic, says Claude DeMone, Regional President, Southwestern Ontario at RBC, which has committed to supporting programs that help youth and families access the right mental health care at the right time.

“Our ability to be resilient and bounce-back from adversity are capabilities many of us have needed to tap into during the course of this pandemic. Building them up takes strong support circles of family, friends and community,” says DeMone. “With young people facing more than a year of isolation without in-person schooling, social activities and easy access to community programs, it’s easy to understand how their resiliency ‘reserves’ can become depleted.”

Mental health challenges are often compounded by a lack of LGBT+ affirming mental health services. In Ontario, a 2020 YouthLine study found that nearly a third of LGBT+ youth reported that their mental health needs aren’t being met through offerings like counselling.

Most also reported a lack of a sense of community — with half never having accessed a dedicated LGBT+ space, such as group workshops with other youth going through similar experiences.

As a parent or caregiver, how do you help those who identify as LGBT+ feel a sense of belonging among each other and in the wider community? And how do you help them with the mental health challenges that arise from facing sustained discrimination?

OK2BME youth programming, which is run by KW Counselling Services, works at three levels in Waterloo Region to promote mental health as well as belonging: Firstly, there’s safe, supportive, free counselling for people under 30. Secondly, there are social and leadership programs that engage youth. Crucially, OK2BME also hosts public education workshops and training that promotes LGBT+ equity and inclusion—that helps build knowledge, allyship, and attitudes. After all, explains OK2BME, the source of mental health issues among LGBT+ youth isn’t their identities—it’s identity-related discrimination.

“Everyone has the right to feel comfortable and safe to be their authentic selves,” added DeMone. “At RBC we believe we have a key role to play in creating a more diverse and inclusive workplace and society for generations to come. We’re so proud to have the opportunity to partner with organizations like KW Counselling Services and support their mission to uplift and support LGBT+ youth across our communities.”

Alicia Rubel, an OK2BME social worker, therapist, and public educator spoke about public education, community resilience, and the joys of seeing LGBT+ youth flourish in this year’s group sessions — despite the workshops moving online.

Q: How can communities support youth resilience?

“It’s the responsibility of the adults and people with power in the world to make it a place where 2SLGBTQ+ youth are safe so they can be sensitive, so they can be open, so they can have their walls down,” Rubel says. “So they don’t have to struggle so darn much.”

“Creating a community that supports 2SLGBTQ youths’ resilience is what we’re looking for,” she says. “We’re trying to create environments where community resilience can be fostered, rather than putting that labour on youth.”

“That’s a big part of the reason why we as an organization focus so much on things like public education to address some of that oppression, and why we have these youth groups to help reduce the isolation.”

Q: How have youth you see been coping during the pandemic?

“One good thing we’ve seen is that some youth and adults have taken this time to get to know themselves better, to explore their identities,” says Rubel.

“It’s definitely hard. It’s such a critical period of time for youth in terms of having social relationships. So to have social isolation at this moment is really hard. Isolation is particularly hard for 2SLGBTQ+ folks because having that connection to the community is part of what buffers some of the effects of experiencing oppression.”

Sometimes trying to be resilient can take the form of acting defensive or “putting up walls” to try and cope with a situation she says.

“It’s also true that some 2SLGBTQ+ folks may be at home with families who don’t necessarily support them. So this time can be particularly hard,” she explains.

Q: Have you noticed youth showing more resilience in digital group sessions?

“For those who are in a safe space at home, it’s been a great time for experimenting with their gender expression because they can do that through the day without necessarily being out in public,” she says. “So we’ve seen a lot of youth who — during the pandemic — have come to recognize their identities, understand themselves better, and maybe come out.”

“Especially in the Gender Journeys workshops, and in our youth groups generally, we’ve seen a huge increase in confidence. A lot of them, when they first log into calls they’ll be super shy. They’ll have their cameras off, they might not be want to speak out loud, they might just be typing in the chat.”

“They’re just coming from different backgrounds in terms of how much acceptance they have at home, and in their lives.”

“Then what we see over time is that they start to turn their cameras on. They begin to participate more. They come in and they’re excited to share about their day.”

Q: What changes have you seen in digital group sessions?

“Over the weeks we often see our screens literally light up. It’s really beautiful. In the first session, we may just see black screens, just with names, and then they’re all comfortable sharing what they look like — which, for trans and gender-variant youth can be a scary thing in particular.”

“The feedback we get shows a huge increase in confidence, a huge increase in a sense of belonging, and in Gender Journeys in understanding as they navigate what it means to be gender diverse.”

“It’s one of the really beautiful things we see with these groups. They’re so excited to celebrate each others’ victories and life changes, to say, ‘Okay, how do we be friends? How do we support each other?’ That definitely continues outside our sessions. We almost joke that there’s an unofficial group afterward.”