Funding backs healthy relationships program

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High-risk youth from across Canada will soon receive much-needed support around healthy relationships as researchers simultaneously gain a better understanding of what kind of programing works best for these young people – all thanks to federal backing of a new Western-led project.

Western Education professor Claire Crooks and her team received $5 million over five years from the Public Health Agency of Canada for their project, A Healthy Relationships Approach to Violence Prevention and Mental Health Promotion with Vulnerable Youth. The funding was announced at Western’s Faculty of Education today.

“Our programming has been shown to reduce teen dating violence – but its impact is much broader,” Crooks said. “Our positive youth development approach gives youth the skills they need to develop healthy relationships, improve their mental health, and minimize problematic substance use.”

Adapted from the Healthy Relationships Plus (HRP) program, developed by Western’s Centre for School Mental Health, the new project looks to evaluate current and develop new programming for high-risk youth, including LGBT2Q+, Indigenous and newcomers, in the area of healthy relationships.

The funding will allow the project to engage with more than 2,600 youth and provide training and resources to 540 facilitators and 875 pre-service educators across Ontario, Alberta and Northwest Territories.

“There are short-term and long-tern consequences for these youth. This is a public-health problem that requires public-health solutions and we need effective programs,” Crooks said, adding 20 per cent of youth have experienced some form of dating violence. “Not only is that common, but it’s harmful.”

She continued, “When we raise our children, we don’t want them to just stop hitting. We want them to develop the skills and capacities they need to be successful, contributing members of their community. It means teaching healthy relationship skills, good communication, how to give an apology, what consent means and how they can get help for themselves or a friend. This is an unpredicted opportunity for us to create a real impact.”

The project also allows researchers to build evidence around what works for these youth in real-world settings and share that knowledge with organizations working in the area.

The project will work with community organizations, school boards, ministries, Child Protective Services, Youth Justice Services, public health units and others to improve existing options for dating violence prevention programming currently out of reach to all youth.

Anago, one of the community partners involved in the project, is a non-profit that creates opportunities for at-risk youth and vulnerable adults to achieve independence through integration into the community.

Anago Executive Director Kathryn Eggert says the healthy relationships program they offer has made a difference in a number of youth’s lives in the London community.

“We, as human beings, are wired to be in relationships. Learning about how to have healthy relationships, particularly when you have been exposed to the extreme trauma like some of the people we support have experienced, is invaluable for them to live healthy in the community,” she said. “Youth are having many ‘a-ha’ moments about what a healthy relationship is. It is making a difference. It has real value for youth. They see it; they feel it; they learn it.”