The Rural Ottawa Youth Mental Health Collective

Stigma-Free Society recently reached out to Meagan Ann Gordon and Kaitlyn Beaulieu from the Rural Ottawa Youth Mental Health Collective (ROYMHC). Keep reading to learn more about the ROYMHC and Kaitlyn’s experience with mental health as a youth living in a rural area!

1. Tell us about the Rural Ottawa Youth Mental Health Collective! Why was it originally created, and what programs and services do you offer?

Meagan: In 2018, Nicole McKerracher, Executive Director of the Osgoode Youth Association (and now Chair of ROYMHC) brought together 13 rural youth-serving agencies invested in the mental wellbeing of rural Ottawa youth (ages 12 to 24). What started as a conversation turned into an action-orientated working group set out to understand and move the needle on rural Ottawa youth mental health. We became the Rural Ottawa Youth Mental Health Collective.

From there, we set out to establish how many rural Ottawa youth felt supported, and what types of programs and services could be offered to help them feel more supported with their mental health. Through robust data collection where we spoke with and surveyed youth, parents/guardians, and community stakeholders, we developed an intended impact statement: By 2024, 80% of rural Ottawa youth (ages 12-24) will feel they are getting the mental health support they need or know where to go for help if and when they need to access support.

How are we going to do this? We have a 5-strategy approach.

The first strategy is connecting with rural Ottawa youth to let them know what already exists in their local rural area. We do this through a dedicated website, social media and community outreach. We also partner with CHEO’s YouthNet to do in-school presentations, where we educate students on mental health skill building, chat about community resources available in specific rural areas, and connect them to ROYMHC.

The second and third strategies are youth education and circle of support education. Both of these strategies involve community-based workshops. The Collective is meeting youth where they’re at and co-facilitating with local Community Resource Centres who offer youth counselling.
Strategy four is to advocate for increased investment in rural-specific programming and to promote youth mental health counselling programs in rural Ottawa communities. This also includes helping rural-serving organizations secure and design private and welcoming spaces for rural mental health counselling.

Finally, strategy five is community engagement. This involves building the capacity of existing rural-serving youth organizations and working with a Youth Advisory Committee to gain guidance and feedback from youth.

2. What are some of the main challenges you’ve seen rural youth face with regard to mental health? How can these challenges be addressed?

Meagan: Let’s set the scene: You’re 16 years old and you live with your family in Fitzroy Harbour, a rural community in Western Ottawa with a population of about 580 people. You’re struggling with your mental health and you decide to find out what programs and services are available to you. You call a helpline that connects people to social services, programs and community supports. The operator on 211 asks for your postal code. The operator is thrilled to hear you live in Ottawa because you’re eligible for many great programs and services! The problem is, they’re in the urban core of Ottawa. You don’t drive and there’s no bus service. Your parents are supportive, but they have full-time jobs and can’t take you to a mid-day appointment 50+ minutes away.

This is one example of a scenario that ROYMHC members have heard repeatedly: Ottawa has many specialized mental health programs and services, but due to Ottawa’s vast land mass, there is a major disconnect between rural and urban/suburban. Local school boards have supports in rural schools, but there are limitations to accessing those services. ROYMHC members know that in order to support rural Ottawa youth more effectively, there needs to be a dedicated community approach – a rural specific approach.

3. If rural youth in Ottawa need support, where can they reach out?

Meagan: If you are a rural Ottawa youth or ally looking for support, check out our website at and follow us on Twitter (@RuralOttYouth), Facebook (Rural Ottawa Youth Mental Health Collective), or Instagram (@RuralOttawaYouth). Our website provides rural-local and virtual options.

4. What has your personal experience with mental health been like as a youth living in a rural community?

Kaitlyn: As a youth living in a rural community, it was both challenging and isolating navigating my mental health challenges. All the services I needed were so far away downtown. Given the lack of public transportation and lack of local resources, it was almost impossible to access supports and services. My only saving grace was that my school brought in specialized services for at-risk youth, which I met the criteria for. To this day, I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities and services I received.

5. In your opinion, what is the most important thing adults can do to support rural youth?

Kaitlyn: In my opinion, the most important thing adults can do to support rural youth is be open and willing to listen. If a youth trusts an adult enough to open up these dark and vulnerable parts of themselves, it is vital that we have someone safe and supportive there to listen.

6. What strategies do you use to take care of your mental health and overall well-being?

Kaitlyn: To take care of my mental health and overall well-being, I like to go for walks with my dog, or do something active like going to the gym or for a bike ride. I enjoy baking and doing anything creative, like crafts or makeup.