Julie Zaky is a psychology student at l’Université du Québec à Montréal and a youth mental health advocate with Jack.org. Drawing from her personal experience with depression, Julie strongly believes that young people have the power to lead the mental health discussion in their communities and create positive change. Every action counts and Julie is determined to spread this message as far as possible.
Julie is sharing her story in the lead up to Bell Let’s Talk Day, January 29. We talked to her about her experience as a mental health advocate, how her personal experience has shaped her, and how anyone can inspire change for youth – and beyond.
What inspired you to get involved with Jack.org?
When I was 18 years old, I struggled with my mental health and was diagnosed with depression. Before that, I had no idea what mental health was. I didn’t know I had mental health, which I needed to take care of just like my physical health. Instead of recognizing what I was going through as signs of struggle, I was blaming myself for the way I felt and for all my symptoms. While I was recovering, I realized that the people around me knew nothing about mental health. So, once I recovered, I decided that I wanted to change how people perceive mental health. I started actively seeking an organization that allowed me to connect with young people and talk to them openly about mental health. Jack.org seemed like the perfect fit. I wanted to make sure that everyone knew the signs of struggle and that youth in my community were able to seek help when needed. We all have a mental health and we shouldn’t be ashamed if we struggle with it.
What is the most important thing you have learned on your journey as a youth mental health advocate with Jack.org?
The most important thing I have learned is that young people are capable of leading and creating lasting change, and making a big impact on our society. If we want to change youth mental health, young people have to lead that change. While it is important that different professionals work together to improve the state of youth mental health, young people are the experts on their own needs and the factors that contribute to positive mental health in their communities. It is crucial to include young peoples’ perspectives on every move we make to improve youth mental health.
What advice would you give a fellow young person looking to make a difference in mental health in Canada?
To be persistent, but patient. Creating truly durable change will take time. Your first initiative might not go as planned. Maybe not as many people will show up as you expect, or maybe you can’t execute all of your great ideas because of certain regulations. But that’s okay and normal. You did reach the people who showed up, and you did your best with the resources you had. Change in the mental health landscape is incremental. Although it might seem slow at first, you are on the right path. There is no such thing as an initiative that’s too small. Everything you do to change mental health brings your community closer to optimal mental health. Your passion and dedication will create a ripple effect: more and more people will join and support your work, which will ultimately create lasting change.
What are simple actions someone can take to support a friend or family member struggling with their mental health?
The online platform Be There is dedicated to teaching young people (or anyone really) how to support others who might be struggling with their mental health. There are 5 rules, but my favourite ones are to ‘Hear them out’ and ‘Connect them to help.’ ‘Hear them out’ simply entails listening and reflecting on what the other person is feeling. This means setting aside our prejudices, experiences and phones to have an engaging conversation with that person. All we have to do is listen and ask them questions to encourage them to explore exactly what they are going through. It’s not the time to give them advice or judge them. Simply listening can be a powerful tool.
The other rule, ‘Connecting them to help,’ is about letting them know that there are resources out there for them, whether it’s a doctor, a psychologist or someone in their community, so that they can get the help that they need. We are not all mental health professionals and might not be able to fully support people struggling with their mental health. A mental health professional can fill that gap. Keep in mind that there are many types of mental health support providers and helping someone find the right fit could be a great way to assist them. For more information, you can visit BeThere.org to see more examples of simple actions that can be taken, videos, Q&A, etc.
Who is your support network? How do they help you when you are having a tough day?
My support network is my family and friends. I am lucky to be in a stigma-free environment when it comes to mental health. When I have a tough day, I know that I can count on someone to hear me out, to offer me a space where I can vent and talk about the emotions that I am experiencing, without any judgement. They accept the thoughts and emotions I am going through. Most of the time, all I need is an ear to listen without judgement and that’s exactly what they offer me. They make sure to check up on me in the following days to see how I am doing. And they encourage me to seek out professional help when they feel like I could benefit from it.
What is the one message you want students who might be struggling with their mental health to take away?
No matter what you are going through, you deserve to get the help you need. No matter how much more other people might seem to struggle, or no matter how big or small you think your problem is, go and seek that help. Reaching out for professional help can be scary, especially the first time. But whatever you are going through is valid and reaching out for help is one of the best decisions you can make!