Calgary student launches online peer-to-peer support group

A young woman who lived through the difficult Grade 12 graduation season last spring wants to help other youth in Calgary by spearheading an online peer-to-peer support group.

Isabella Burton, 18 spearheading group with support of 40 volunteers, mostly teens in Calgary and Edmonton

Isabella Burton, 18, is now studying at U of C. She wanted to help students like herself who are struggling through the difficult mental challenges of the pandemic, and has started a Calgary chapter of a peer-to-peer online counselling support called Peerify. (Submitted by Isabella Burton)

A young woman who lived through the difficult Grade 12 graduation season last spring wants to help other youth in Calgary by spearheading an online peer-to-peer support group.

Isabella Burton, 18, says schools and the government are not offering enough mental health support for students, who are struggling under the COVID-related pressures of online schooling and uncertainty.

"There wasn't really enough resources provided by our schools and the government, as well that those services weren't readily available," Burton, who is now studying at the University of Calgary, told CBC.

As Burton finished her final year of high school from home, she reached out to a group called Peerify youth, a startup non-profit out of Toronto. At Peerify, volunteers — mostly teenagers — become mentors and can offer online support through one-on-one calls and workshops.

She spearheaded a Calgary chapter, which now has 40 local volunteers.

"With Peerify, you can have that same person talk to you a second time," Burton said. "So if you have to come back, talk to us a second time, you can talk with the same person who you talked with before, as opposed to having to explain your story all over again and then try and hope you find someone who understood as well as the last time."

Burton says the free service is aimed at helping people between the ages of 13 and 23, an age group she says often feels too old to see a child psychologist, but don't feel comfortable in an adult setting. 

A recent report on the mental health of Canadian children found that suicide is now the leading cause of death among children age 10 to 14.

The report, Raising Canada 2020, was published by the University of Calgary's O'Brien Institute for Public Health, the Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute, and Children First Canada, a national children's advocacy society.

It concluded that poverty and food insecurity, child abuse, neglect, physical inactivity and instances of anxiety and depression among children may be increasing — or are in danger of increasing — because of the pandemic. 

Meanwhile, existing services are strained. Kids Help Phone, the charity that offers 24/7 counselling services to young Canadians in distress, has reported that demand for Kids Help Phone's services has been on the rise, with calls and text messages surging since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

"Currently, to speak with a Kids Help Phone representative, the wait is about 45 minutes," Burton wrote in an email. "Keeping this in mind, it will be no surprise when we see a sharp increase in mental health issues among youth. We acknowledge that these services are vital to the safety of Calgarians, however, there is a lack of free alternatives that will help prevent these calls in the first place."

Peerify was founded by Karen Guan, 17 in Toronto. Guan said  it's important for people her age to connect through a similar experience.

"You know having that unfiltered and casual talk, it eases that pain instantly, and for many people having someone they can relate to, is really a transformative experience."

The group is holding a free virtual self-care workshop on December 9. For more information go to Peerify Calgary.

With files from Terri Trembath


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