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Lifelong Mental Wellbeing Starts With Reaching Out To Youth

12/18/2015 12:02 EST | Updated 12/18/2016 05:12 EST

Ontario's Mental Health & Addictions Leadership Advisory Council published its first annual report this week. At 22 pages long, it's actually pretty short for a government document. Even so, most people won't find time to read it. That's why I'm writing this today.

Ontario needs more resources to promote good mental well-being, prevent mental health issues, and intervene earlier with cases of serious mental illness.

Like many people, I'm all too familiar with the human cost of untreated mental illness. My son, Jack, died by suicide in 2010.

The oldest of our three kids, Jack had just started university. He had always been an excellent student -- so he had his pick of schools -- and he chose Queen's University, my alma mater.

He started out like most freshmen university students: excited, upbeat, and eager to make new friends. But things went downhill fast. By November, he was spending most of his time alone in his room. His grades dropped. And he stopped going to classes. In March we got the call that every parent dreads. Jack was gone.

There's no way to quantify the loss our family felt when Jack died -- no number to put on the holidays we won't spend together, the milestones we won't celebrate, the grand-kids we'll never meet.

Investing in promotion, prevention and early intervention is the key to improving mental health in this province.

But beyond the incalculable personal loss, we now know the economic cost of inaction. As the report outlines, for every dollar we invest in pre-school education or parent support, there's a return of $6 to $16.

Investing in promotion, prevention and early intervention is the key to improving mental health in this province. And that starts with reaching out to young people.

Why? Because suicide is the leading health-related cause of death of young people in Canada. At least one in five young Canadians will struggle with mental illness. And the majority of those who struggle won't receive the help they need to get better.

We need to do a better job of educating youth on how to take care of themselves and their peers. They need to know that we all have mental health, just like we all have physical health. They need to know that mental health is a spectrum and that it's ok to ask for help. And they need to know the things they can do to help themselves stay healthy.

This can prevent minor issues and help catch serious disorders before they get even worse.

It's like that old saying: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

Reaching people while they're still young means that they can take a proactive approach to living mentally healthy lives. This can prevent minor issues and help catch serious disorders before they get even worse.

It is so similar to how we deal with physical health. A proactive approach to good physical health means going to the gym, eating right, and having your regular screenings. Those three things will have a significant impact on your long-term health. From a healthcare perspective, they are far more cost effective than treating a preventable disease later on in life.

After Jack died, my family and I started talking, and we never stopped. We founded an organization in his memory called Jack.org. Today, it has grown into a network of thousands of student leaders who are talking about mental health on campuses across the country.

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They're reaching out to their fellow students and encouraging them to take care of their mental health. They're breaking down the stigma of mental illness in their school communities.

Investing in prevention, promotion and early intervention has been shown to have among the highest rates of return on investment in the mental health field. It's why my family and I invest our time and resources in a program like Jack.org. And it's why Ontario should invest in similar programs as a key part of moving our mental health and addictions system forward.

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