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After losing his son Jack to suicide in 2010, Eric Windeler is changing the face of youth mental health in Canada

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“How are you doing?” While these words are said countless times a day, the question is seldom genuinely answered.

According to Eric Windeler, founder and executive director of The Jack Project, improving mental health hinges on the openness to engage — fully engage — with that very question.

After losing his son Jack, a first-year Queen’s student, to suicide almost four years ago, Windeler and his wife Sandra Hanington started The Jack Project, a charitable organization aimed at increasing awareness of mental health and illness.

Jack, ArtSci ’13, died in his Leonard Hall residence room on March 27, 2010.

“That phone call from the police officer was our harsh introduction into the whole field of mental health and suicide,” Windeler said. “Of course, we’d heard about mental health, but we didn’t know much about it, and we hadn’t been personally touched by it.”

Suicide is the number one health-related cause of death among young people today. It’s the leading cause of death following accidents, but moreover, it’s preventable.

“We just decided to be completely open and transparent about our story,” Windeler said. “We quickly learned how common it is, and how much more conversation is needed.”

After initially raising funds with Kids Help Phone in Jack’s memory, the Windelers continued to raise awareness of suicide and mental illness, to have some good come from their loss.

“I basically never went back to work. I just started working on this,” Windeler said. “About six months later, we had developed a fund … we’re now an independent charity, based here in Toronto.”

Following his son’s death, Windeler set aside his endeavours in the business world to become a full-time advocate for youth mental health.

“I remember the first few times that I’d come across people and they’d ask me what I do,” he said. “It was so hard, because everything out of my mouth was reliving this whole thing. Now, I talk to people about it, whether it’s after a tennis game, or I’m on a plane and someone asks me what I do.”

One in five Canadians suffer from a mental health challenge every year. What remains truly problematic is the stigma surrounding mental illness, according to Windeler.

“We all have mental health,” Windeler said. “You should be conscious of your mental health, just like you are your physical health.”

Currently, The Jack Project’s primary objective is to provide schools and student leaders with the resources they need to raise awareness of mental health.

“We think where our real niche is, is using Jack’s story to really engage young people to be more involved,” Windeler said.

Starting with a year’s worth of speaking engagements at schools across Ontario in 2011, The Jack Project then built a partnership with Queen’s University, an alliance it now plans to emulate with other schools. Its aim is to engage students, increase well-being, reduce youth suicides and ultimately help change the landscape of mental health in Canada.

“We are so pleased to have our partnership with Queen’s,” Windeler said. He added that The Jack Project is helping to fund the recently-launched Bounce Back Program at Queen’s, a mentorship program designed for first-year students whose GPA is below 1.6.

“It’s something that we felt passionate about and that’s why we’re using some of our funds towards that,” Windeler said.

The Jack Project also offers funding for projects related to mental health at Queen’s through its Student Initiative Fund, facilitated through the Office of Student Affairs.

Justin Scaini, ArtSci ’13, is one of several Queen’s students who got involved with The Jack Project to promote mental health on campus.

In 2013, Scaini founded Unleash the Noise, an annual student mental health innovation summit, sponsored by The Jack Project. Student leaders from every province and territory applied for 200 delegate positions at the now-annual Toronto conference to discuss how to better mental health for today’s youth.

This year’s summit had over 800 student applicants.

Windeler said speakers at The Jack Project events often encourage all attendees to tell someone about their experience at the event.

Windeler noted the importance of reaching out if you think you may be struggling yourself, and observing when a friend’s change in behaviour might be an indicator of a mental health struggle.

According to Windeler, the transitory time bridging high school and university can be the most difficult time in one’s life, as it’s often marked with first relationships, living in a new city and attending a new school.

“It can be a very risky time,” Windeler said. “It can also be a very incredible time, but if you’re struggling, it’s kind of like double trouble, because everybody else around you seems to be having this amazing time.”

While mental health awareness has increased in the last four years, Windeler said there’s a long way to go before the stigma will be shattered.

He referenced the breast cancer awareness movement to exemplify stigma reduction as a long-term endeavour, and one that requires grassroots support from people of all ages.

“About 20 years ago, the breast cancer movement was more or less where the mental health movement is now,” he said. “So if a woman was diagnosed with breast cancer, she basically wouldn’t tell anybody.”

As the conversation about breast cancer became common among those affected, the attitude towards the illness improved immeasurably.

“It became something that people are not ashamed of,” Windeler said. “What that has led to is more women getting tested earlier, and more detection earlier, and better outcomes.”

Windeler said four years ago, when he first became engaged in mental health awareness, the movement was at the beginning of a similar 20-year spectrum.

“Are we five years into this? Probably, but we still have a long way to go in this awareness, education and getting people to move beyond just knowing about it, but to actually behave differently.”

Windeler mentioned Principal Woolf’s Commission on Mental Health as a major achievement so far.

The Commission’s Final Report, published in late 2012, outlined plans to educate students on all aspects of mental and physical health, provide appropriate academic accommodations when necessary and build a community of support to mitigate the anxiety frequently felt by students.

The report, which said that 53 per cent of Ontario post-secondary students have felt overwhelmed by anxiety, summarized the Commission’s four primary goals to improve mental health. These include promoting a healthy culture of wellness and inclusivity, facilitating a smooth transition to university life, fostering coping skills, actively encouraging help-seeking and helping behaviours and providing accessible, high quality health services.

“There’s a lot of kids that struggle and some of them — far too many of them — end up in Jack’s situation,” Windeler said. “You want to help anybody who’s struggling adapt to a new situation, and if they do need to get into the health care system, help them get there, because when you’re in the midst of it yourself, you may not be able to pull yourself out of that effectively.”

While not all mental health struggles involve suicide, the commonality of mental illness means it affects a staggering amount of people.

“All families are affected in one way or another by mental health struggle,” Windeler said.

When it comes to helping friends, Windeler recommends trusting one’s instincts.

“Trust your gut,” he said. “If there’s a change in behaviour, something is up, and that’s when you need to strategize and figure out how you’re going to have a conversation with someone.”

Starting those conversations can be challenging, but more than worthwhile, according to Sydney Cormier, ArtSci ’13, who currently works as a project lead at The Jack Project.

“I have had indirect experiences with mental health, and I know people who have struggled with their mental health ... so I always had a desire to contribute to this movement,” Cormier said.

She said that mental health awareness seemed relatively nonexistent when she first arrived at Queen’s.

“In my perspective, it’s come a long way in these four short years,” she said.

Working behind the scenes at events like Unleash the Noise, Cormier now helps student leaders put mental health on the agenda.

“We have received messages from students that we’ve connected with, that have said, ‘Were it not for The Jack Project, I might not be here today’,” she said.

Part of what she thinks makes Jack Project events effective is their focus on what she calls, ‘the five in five’ — while one in five Canadians is directly affected by mental health issues in any given year, everyone has their own mental health to take care of.

“A lot of initiatives in mental health and in mental health awareness really resonate with those people who are familiar with the issue, but what we want to do is target everybody,” Cormier said.

Cormier said normalizing the use of mental health resources is pertinent to reducing the stigma as well.

Fortunately for Queen’s students, the University now offers more mental health resources than ever before.

In the last four years, Queen’s has expanded its mental health resources and educated more than 5,000 people on the topic, according to Mike Condra, director of Health, Counseling and Disability Services (HCDS).

Information on what to do in an emergency, how to identify and respond to a student in distress and how to direct a student to help is available through HCDS. The University has also hired four new counsellors to act as a resource to students since 2010.

“All of the mental health education and service initiatives are in tandem with what The Jack Project is doing,” Condra said.

University students are among the most likely age bracket to develop mental illness — most commonly depression and anxiety, he explained.

Possible signs of these challenges include loss of interest and lack of motivation, a significant change in appearance induced by less self-care, acting out of character; and having difficulty concentrating, sleeping and controlling emotions.

Condra emphasized that mental illness is marked by its persistence, with symptoms extending beyond a bad day or tough week.

His recommendations for reaching out to someone who might be suffering include approaching the person to discuss the topic, listening to how they’re feeling, offering your support and referring them to resources.

“Focus on things you can notice, not on trying to think that you can diagnose them,” he said. “You don’t necessarily have to be able to solve the problem, but people develop a huge amount of hope from feeling that they’re being listened to.”

According to Condra, the best support one can provide is hope.

“Sometimes, particularly for young people, they can lose hope very quickly because they may be experiencing things and feeling things that they haven’t had before,” he said.

Condra said having something in your life that you can enjoy doing every day is central to optimal mental health, as is having someone you can trust and confide in.

“We can’t change people, but we can encourage them, and sometimes friends do an amazingly remarkable job of supporting each other and getting a friend pointed in the right direction.”

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