Ireland embraces Canadian HEADSTRONG model

When the Irish national awareness charity Cycle Against Suicide went searching for a partner to address stigma in high schools, they didn’t have to look farther than the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s (MHCC) HEADSTRONG anti-stigma summits.

“The organizers looked around the world for what they felt was the strongest, evidence-based program to address mental health and wellness in schools,” says Bob Heeney, National Coordinator for HEADSTRONG. “It was quite an honour to be chosen.”

Heeney points out that HEADSTRONG was likely to resonate so strongly with the Irish charity in part because it is rooted in the sharing of stories of recovery, and, “…the Irish love to tell stories.”  It’s also fitting that the first national summit was held at the Honorable Society of Kings Inns, the oldest law school in Ireland. “Here we are making history, in a venue steeped in history,” says Heeney.

According to UNICEF’s latest report card on child well-being, one in 10,000 Irish youth aged 15-19 will die by suicide. The report further shows that in younger teens, aged 11-15, “more than 22 per cent report having experienced two or more psychological symptoms more than once a week.”

Even as Ireland faces those alarming statistics, an online survey by Ireland’s largest, independent, not-for-profit mental health service shows that there is still great stigma attached to mental health issues.  According to the study, two thirds of the respondents said it was a sign of personal failure to be treated for a mental health issue.

“HEADSTRONG tackles stigma head-on,” says Louise Bradley, President and CEO of the MHCC. “We are tremendously proud that this made in Canada program is going to help to stamp out stigma across the globe. It’s an endorsement of the extraordinary work our Opening Minds team has been doing, and it’s a reminder that stigma remains a pervasive and insidious barrier to help-seeking.”

And that’s where HEADSTRONG really shines, explains Stephanie Knaak, Ph.D., Research Associate with Opening Minds and Adjuct Assistant Professor at the University of Calgary. “We are seeing post-summit test scores showing a significant increase in willingness to seek help for a mental health problem and – crucially – increased knowledge about where to go to find that help. Equally encouraging, we are seeing similar increases in the proportion of students who say they would know how to support a friend experiencing a mental health problem.”

“Intervening early in a mental health problem or illness is the best predictor of a positive outcome, so HEADSTRONG puts young people on a path to getting the services and supports they need sooner,” affirms Heeney, highlighting that upwards of 95 per cent of the students who attend a HEADSTRONG summit leave feeling inspired and motivated to take a stand against stigma.

Back in Ireland, on October 4, more than 85 students, coming from 21 schools gathered in Dublin to learn how to become mental health champions, before returning to their schools and communities to engage and educate their peers.  The organizers showed a strong fidelity to the summit model, from breakout room exercises to ensuring speakers were delivering their own compelling high school mental health stories.

“They talk about dark times, about isolation and perhaps ineffectual counsellors,” says Heeney. “Then they highlight the strength it takes to seek help, and how much work getting healthy can entail. But ultimately it’s leaving the young people with the idea that stigma should be a relic of the past and no one should let it stop them from finding the light at the end of a very dark tunnel.”

The Irish pilot was so successful that they plan to implement regional summits with grassroots speakers next year. “It’s really amazing,” says Heeney. “We’re a small team, but the demand for HEADSTRONG keeps growing. I can’t wait to see where the next invitation might come from.”