This story is the first in a four-part series on how University of Calgary researchers and the United Way are making progress in the areas of improving mental health, socioeconomic well-being, healthy relationships and social inclusion. Together, we can improve lives in our community. Find out how you can help.
A staggering 70 per cent of adults with a mental illness report their symptoms first emerged during childhood and adolescence. Despite this statistic, only one in five children who require essential mental health support receive it. In an effort to change these numbers for the better, the University of Calgary is once again partnering with United Way of Calgary and Area for its 2023 Workplace Campaign.
The campaign’s approach includes a focus on the betterment of mental health supports and highlights the importance of early intervention. Dr. Alan McLuckie, MSW’98, PhD, is an experienced mental health therapist and associate professor in the Faculty of Social Work whose work directly relates to the campaign’s mental health emphasis.
Youth mental health stigma
McLuckie’s primary focus is on how existing research can be implemented into policy and practice. His work centres on the critical zero-to-five age demographic, addressing the roots of mental health issues and challenging the widespread stigma surrounding them.
"By and large, in mental health, the onset is in the younger years,” McLuckie says. “The vast majority of any of the mental disorders and mental illnesses that you're going to see in life, they emerge in that range,” He emphasizes the significance of caregiver mental health and wellness during these formative years as they play a pivotal role in shaping the emotional well-being of young people.
McLuckie’s research works to illuminate the chasm in the current system, where the child welfare, mental health and education sectors are not adequately co-ordinated. He sees this lack of co-ordination as a significant barrier to providing comprehensive support to at-risk youth and their families.
"Most of our children that are at risk, they're involved in all three, but we don't co-ordinate our efforts or initiatives around that," he says. McLuckie's work aims to help bridge these gaps, focusing on translating research into policies that provide a more integrated system of care.
McLuckie’s research also highlights the need to address the stigma surrounding mental health, particularly its impact on our youngest community members. He explains that stigma often turns people's focus away from the needs of young people, leading to late interventions and further complications down the line.
McLuckie points out the tendency to discredit or minimize the legitimacy of mental health issues in young people, often waiting until behavioural issues manifest rather than providing early support. He advocates for a societal shift in thinking, arguing for an approach that optimizes the fit between the person and the environment.
Planet Youth: A holistic approach to youth wellness
The approach advocated by McLuckie aligns with United Way's commitment to increasing access to mental health support through early intervention. United Way is actively investing in programs designed to support these goals, with one standout initiative being the Planet Youth prevention model.
This community-driven approach, in partnership with UCalgary, is making progress in promoting well-being among Calgary's youth. Notably, it has been successful in reducing youth substance-use rates.
Developed in Iceland more than two decades ago, the Planet Youth model has since been adopted globally to encourage wellness among young people and foster positive change in their lives. The model aims to reduce risk factors that can harm youth wellness and is adaptable to each region to account for the diverse needs of every community.
Its holistic approach brings together every member of the community, from local youth and caregivers to researchers and policy-makers, all with the shared goal of nurturing an environment that empowers youth to reach their fullest potential.
Melissa Beck, evaluation and insights co-ordinator at United Way, says the collaboration with UCalgary is vital in collecting and using real-time, local data to inform decisions about interventions in the community.
"United Way of Calgary and Area has partnered with a research team at UCalgary that will be overseeing our local data collection,” Beck says, adding that UCalgary “supports the knowledge translation of the data to local teams of community residents, school representatives and agencies who will be making the decisions about what actions and interventions we want to bring to our communities.
"The partnership we have with UCalgary brings the capacity needed to carry out this portion of the Planet Youth model, as well as expertise and key partnerships with other stakeholders in this project."
Planet Youth’s holistic approach to mental health and wellness resonates with McLuckie, who encourages social inclusion in the development of mental health strategies.
“The most successful projects I’ve been involved with have an integrated, ongoing meaningful relationship with the constituents,” he says.
The ongoing collaboration between the University of Calgary and the United Way of Calgary and Area demonstrates a shared dedication to enhancing mental health supports for young people. McLuckie's innovative research and the Planet Youth prevention model offer promising pathways to addressing mental-health issues and breaking down the barriers that can prevent individuals and families from seeking help.
Students, faculty and staff can give their support by donating to United Way before Dec. 15. To donate, log in with your UCalgary email address and password.