Advocate to make the world ‘a little less scary’

Paul Mayne // Western News

King’s University College student Travis Tetreault is co-leading the national Jack Summit this weekend in Toronto, an event that brings together 200 student leaders from across Canada to transform mental health advocacy.

Travis Tetreault loves to see that ‘a-ha’ moment in others.

As a mental-health advocate for youth , the King’s University College student is passionate about helping peers take ownership of issues affecting them to eliminate stigma and raise mental health awareness in the community.

“We call them ‘get it’ moments or ‘a-ha’ moments, where I’m having a conversation with someone and they just get it, it clicks in. It’s such an amazing experience,” he said. “They then share with their friends, they have moments and understand, and it grows from there. I want make mental health not scary to talk about. It’s a huge wall to get over, but we’re really starting to break that down.”

Tetreault first took action against mental-health issues while growing up in Sarnia. Over a two-year stretch of high school, he experienced the suicide of nine young students, which left him, and thousands of high schoolers, reeling from the losses. While he had no personal connection to any of those who died, he knew he couldn’t just sit around and not speak out.

Suicide is the leading health-related cause of death for young people in Canada. By age 25, one in five young Canadians will struggle with mental illness and three out of four of those who struggle won’t receive the help they need to get better.

“Me, being a student, and seeing all these students dying around me, I didn’t really understand what was going on and I didn’t see a lot of support within the schools,” said Tetreault, who is completing a double major in Thanatology and Sexuality Studies. “It had an impact on everyone and that impact kept coming like a wave. It was something we wanted to stop and figure out what was going on. The entire community was in a gloom and that’s not the way it should be. There weren’t any programs that were youth-to-youth based. It was more support on a policy level.”

Tetreault began bringing speakers to his school, led conversations about mental health and soon helped form the Sarnia Lambton Youth Suicide Prevention Committee with other students across the county as a way to provide peer-to-peer support for students.

Through this committee, it was an easy leap for Tetreault to become part of the Jack.org movement, the only national network of young leaders transforming the way mental health is discussed. With initiatives and programs designed for young people, by young people, Jack.org enables youth to better care for themselves and support their peers.

Tetreault’s tireless advocacy sees him co-lead the national Jack Summit this weekend in Toronto, an event he spent the last nine months planning. The event will bring together 200 student leaders from every province and territory across Canada to transform how mental health is addressed and helps students build leadership skills and connection with a Canada-wide network of advocates.

“It’s comforting to see that we are not alone in our struggles, that there are places across Canada that have mental health challenges,” said the 20-year-old Tetreault. “We look for things that students want and incorporate mental health within that. We’re not there to provide direct support. The goal is to open the conversation, erase the stigma and let them know what services are available.”

He added the youth-to-youth approach has been effective in helping to eliminate stigma in his Sarnia community, and he strives to continue to inspire others get involved and take a leadership role in mental-health awareness and anti-stigma initiatives. Tetreault said everyone falls upon hard times at different points of their lives where support may be needed, but it doesn’t necessarily mean a diagnosis of a mental illness.

“It’s about making it a little less scary for students, having them understand how they’re feeling and how to reach out, as opposed to suffering in silence,” said Tetreault. “My passion comes from supporting people and seeing those suffering getting the support they need. It’s so humbling knowing we can make a change, because there was a time when that conversation would never happen. It (mental health) may be part of who we are, but it doesn’t have to define who we are.”