Winnipeg youth advocates say role models, support needed for at-risk boys, men

A couple of Winnipeg youth advocates say at-risk young men and youth need positive role models and safe spaces to share their feelings before they engage in dangerous behaviour.

Boys and young men more likely to die than girls and young women, Canadian study says

Darcy Belanger says being a youth support worker with OPK is therapeutic. (Rachel Bergen/CBC)

A couple of Winnipeg youth advocates say at-risk young men and youth need positive role models and safe spaces to share their feelings before they engage in dangerous behaviour.

Darcy Belanger and Nick Wakos say their lives began to change when they found those spaces and began giving back.

"The system failed me, so I grew up with a lot of violence, being a victim of abuse and making choices that really affected me in the long term. I'm still feeling those mistakes," said Belanger, who grew up in foster care and now works directly with at-risk youth as a support worker at Ogijiita Pimatiswin Kinamatawin (OPK).

The call for mental health supports is supported by recent research.

Nick Wakos is a mentor through the Winnipeg Aboriginal Sport Achievement Centre. He wore this face paint in honour of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls at the second annual Indigenous Bowl last summer. (Reid Williams/NDNSPORTS)

A study published last week in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health looked at 3.1 million children born in Ontario between 1990 and 2016 and examined who died and from what cause from age one to 24.

The authors found boys and young men were more likely to die, especially starting at age 14. They were three times more likely to die by age 24 than young women.

"Once a boy … hits about age 18 or 19, about roughly 70 to 80 per cent of deaths are from injury, and when you break down injury into the type of injury, a lot of those are from overdoses and intentional self-harm and suicide. More than about 60 to 70 per cent are from an intentional mechanism," said Dr. Joel Ray, the lead author of the report.

Wakos, a recent St. John's High School graduate, works with young athletes through the Winnipeg Aboriginal Sport Achievement Centre.

Although he had a loving mother, he had few positive male influences in his life growing up, he said — until he started playing football.

"Going to St. John's, I was able to find my football coach, my gym teacher to be the most relatable person and the most influential person I had come across in my life," he said.

Wakos learned he could turn to his coach to talk about his problems. 

"It took me a really long time to understand … people do care and they will sit and listen to your feelings," he said.

The statistics in the study should serve as a wake-up call, Wakos said. 

"It shouldn't be a wait until the moment when the boys are struggling or that they have to come and talk about their feelings."

Belanger said he could have ended up one of the people reflected in those statistics.

"My biggest issue was not having no compassion for myself. I didn't really care for myself. I still struggle with that today," he said.

"Even in school, I'd be super jealous of kids going home with their parents, them getting picked up and me, I gotta go walk to my group home. I really hated myself for that."

That self-loathing led to bigger problems, including involvement in a gang and prison time.

Belanger said working with OPK and giving back to youth with similar problems is good for the soul.

"I deal with PTSD, depression and anxiety, so it was super hard for me to open up without having flashbacks or anything like that. But helping out with people who have the same diagnosis or the same issues as me, we're on the same level, and helping other people in the community, that was very therapeutic for me," he said.

OPK offers a connection with traditional Indigenous culture and ceremony, housing and mental health supports, among other things.

If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, there is help out there. Contact the Manitoba Suicide Prevention and Support Line toll-free at 1-877-435-7170 (1-877-HELP170) or the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868. You can also text CONNECT to 686868 and get immediate support from a crisis responder through the Crisis Text Line, powered by Kids Help Phone.

With files from Colton Hutchinson