Real Talks
By Sierra Lee, Graham Best, and Assal Rezaei Tabrizi

Q: Tell us about your project!

Sierra: Our project, Real Talks, is a peer support mental health program that aims to encourage high school aged youth to share their lived mental health experience and learn about mental well-being. Real Talks sessions are facilitated workshops that take place at school that provide students with an opportunity to participate in interactive discussions and activities related to mental health. After months of connecting with various organizations, Assal, Graham and I were able to partner with the Crisis Centre of BC for this initiative; Real Talks sessions are also co-facilitated by a Youth Educator from the Crisis Centre, in addition to a Peer with Lived Experience (a senior student who is willing to share their lived mental health experience). As our group designed this project, I think we were all inspired by our own personal experiences with mental health and our strong desire to end the stigma surrounding mental health (specifically among youth at the high school level). Graham came up with the amazing name, “Real Talks” - our inspiration for the name was our goal to create a space where real, unfiltered conversations about mental health, a topic that can otherwise often be stigmatized or avoided, could take place. During the Youth Justice Lab, we interviewed a variety of stakeholders (including school principals, youth workers and other people involved in our school districts) in order to collect feedback on our idea. We also brainstormed organizations we could partner with, and connected with a few of them. We then came up with a detailed project proposal with the support of our mentor Anastasia, which we used to pitch the idea to these stakeholders. Following the Youth Justice Lab, our group agreed that we wanted to continue working on our project and see it through. Our goal was to implement the program in each of our high schools; we continued the work we started during the Lab and began reaching out to different organizations (including Foundry and PeerNetBC) and pitching Real Talks to our school principals. We were able to successfully implement the program in 2 of our 3 schools in partnership with the BC Crisis Centre, and with the support of our school administration.

Assal: Our project is called Real Talks. It is a program designed to help youth talk about mental health in small circles with the help of professional and youth facilitators. The youth facilitators are preferably youth who have lived experience with mental health. The youth facilitators undergo training to be able to control stressful situations and learn to take care of their own mental health. When I joined the Youth Justice Lab in 2020, it had been 2 years since I recovered from an eating disorder. When we were asked to come up with a project that would solve a problem in our community, I looked back on my own experience. The reason why I suffered from my illness for so long was because I never received the proper education to teach me how to take care of my mental health, and I wanted to change that.

Graham: Real Talks is a program that allows youth to have open conversations about their mental health with other youth who are going through similar experiences, or who have worked through similar obstacles in their lives. We decided to choose Real Talks as our name because it reflects that conversations about mental health are difficult, and that difficulty is real and necessary to acknowledge. This project has been important to me because it allowed me to have a part in creating something that would have been valuable to me in my journey with my mental health. 

Q: What change or impact are you hoping your project creates?

Sierra: Finding out that we would be able to run Real Talks at our schools was definitely a big accomplishment, and I think we considered this our first step towards creating change. From the beginning of the Youth Justice Lab last summer up until now, my goal has always been for Real Talks to help inspire my peers to start talking about their mental health or even simply reflect on their mental well-being. Mental health continues to be a topic that is often stigmatized, and my hope was that the program would encourage other youth my age to begin considering their mental health if that is not something they have done previously or thought about before. Now, after running Real Talks at my school, I really hope that every student who attended the Real Talks sessions was able to take something away from the program (whether big or small), such as self-care tools they can use, or more knowledge about what mental health is and why it matters.

Assal: With this project, I hope to help prevent others from going through the same thing I went through. Real Talks is meant to teach youth about mental health in an effort to decrease the chances of developing a mental illness, help youth recognize symptoms of mental illnesses, and decrease stigma around talking about mental health.

Graham: I hope that Real Talks reduces the stigma around mental health in schools. When we can be open about the challenges that we are facing, not just our mental health but in all areas of our lives, our communities become safer and more empathetic. I hope Real Talks will bring honesty and compassion around struggles with mental health to schools safely and respectfully. The development of youth-led spaces that allow youth to have secure and authentic conversations with their peers around topics such as mental health is an invaluable piece of building compassion and resiliency in our communities.

Q: How has the making of your project impacted you/your group?

Sierra: In terms of how I feel the making of Real Talks has impacted me, I personally feel that the process allowed me to step outside of my comfort zone. Planning and implementing this initiative required a fair amount of networking, advocacy, and leadership, which are all things that were very much outside of my comfort zone last summer. However, when I was able to successfully get Real Talks started at my high school, I proved to myself that I am capable of being a leader and that I have the necessary skills to come up with a project idea and put in the work in order to see it through to completion. I also feel that the making of Real Talks solidified my passion for mental health, and also motivated me to pursue my goal of working in the field of mental well-being/psychology in the future. Collaborating on this project also impacted our group by bringing us closer together as we were able to keep in touch over this past year following the Youth Justice Lab as we continued working on Real Talks. Similar to how I feel I was able to prove my leadership abilities to myself during the process, I also feel that as a group, seeing our idea come into fruition allowed us to see that we are a group of capable leaders that are able to make change. 

Assal: Through this project, I got the chance to work with amazing people like Sierra and Graham. I also had the opportunity to meet with numerous inspiring students when I started the round circles at my school. This project showed me that the challenges I faced are not my weakness, instead, they are the foundation for my growth and allow me to help others overcome their struggles.

Graham: Support systems for youth struggling with their mental health center on the relationships with adults such as counsellors, therapists and doctors, but often exclude connection to other youth who are going through or have gone through similar experiences. My involvement with the process behind Real Talks encouraged me to reflect on how our mental health support system is often missing the importance of building safe relationships with our peers around shared experiences, especially for youth.

Click here for more info about the project.