YMCA, Y Mind, Counselling Psychology, Youth Mental Wellness Program

From a Grassroots Pilot Project to a Province-Wide Success: The Story behind YMCA’s Y Mind Program

May 09, 2019

By Dvorah Silverman

The Research Hub team had the opportunity to sit down with Sarah Blackmore, SFU MA Counselling Psychology alumnus and Manager of YMCA Greater Vancouver Mental Wellness Programs, and YMCA Director for Strategic Partnerships, Samantha Hartley-Folz, to speak about all the buzz behind the Y Mind Program. It is an inspirational story about how one UVic Counselling alumnus and two SFU Faculty of Education Counselling Psychology alumni started and grew a grassroots mental wellness program in Vancouver into a province-wide initiative. The project now spans across 25 partner organizations, including six Indigenous pilot sites and aims to serve over 1200 youth ages 13 - 30 experiencing anxiety in B.C by the end of 2020. Carrying on Elizabeth Sabine and Anuschka Naidoo, the co-founders' vision of the YMCA Mindfulness Groups, which started in 2015, Sarah and Samantha gave us insight into the history of how one pilot program resulted in a province-wide success, and the personal achievements that accompanied it.

How did the Y Mind program first come to be?

The idea for the Y Mind program first came to fruition when Elizabeth and Anuschka were working in Youth Employment at the YMCA in 2015. The two recognized that youth that experienced mental health barriers such as depression and anxiety, were struggling to obtain and maintain employment. As it was not in their role or capacity at the time to address the needs of this specific demographic, Elizabeth and Anuschka would refer youth to services in the community. However, they continually faced two roadblocks: subsidized programs had waitlists anywhere from six to 24 months, while available programs were unaffordable for youth with income barriers. Moreover, the majority of these services were focused on a clinical approach requiring a doctor referral for youth experiencing severe symptoms of anxiety or depression. Consequently, Elizabeth and Anuschka were left frustrated with a system that paradoxically perpetuated the progression of the very illness it was attempting to remedy. With their unique blend of experiences, Elizabeth and Anuschka identified a need for programs that supported youth with mild-to-moderate anxiety symptoms who continued to fall through the cracks.

Recognizing this significant gap in services, Elizabeth and Anuschka were interested in developing a program that was fully subsidized, accessible, safe, and provided early intervention support for youth with anxiety. In early 2015, the two were successful in their application for the YMCA Innovation Fund, a $5,000 internal grant offered by the YMCA to invest in fresh ideas within the organization. With this initial seed money, the first inception of the Youth Mindfulness Group was born, and the two were able to hire a clinical supervisor, connect with SFU professors, and form an advisory committee. Dr. Matthew Chow, a psychiatrist formerly with B.C. Children’s Hospital advised on the program design from a medical perspective. Dr. Sharalyn Jordan, a Counselling Psychology faculty member at the Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University, advised on the program design, intake assessment, and the program evaluation. Elizabeth, Anuschka and Sarah believe the strong positive results shown from the evaluation played a crucial role in the expansion of the program two-years later.

What were the results of the first pilot year?

The program offered two versions, the Youth Mindfulness Group, a seven-week support group for participants aged 18 to 30, and later on an adapted 6-week expressive arts based Teen Mindfulness Group for participants aged 13 to 17. The programs were initially facilitated by graduate counsellors and had a maximum of 12 participants per group. As the YMCA describes: “The idea was for participants to learn healthy coping skills to manage their anxiety, connect with other young people, and receive support in a safe environment in the community.” After a consistently run pilot year for the Youth Program, the evaluation demonstrated an immense impact on the total of 72 participants served.

The quantitative findings in Year 1, detailed in the McCreary Centre Society Report, “indicated improvements, and large effect sizes, from pre-treatment to post-treatment on all the Youth Mindfulness Group outcome measures. Specifically, there were reductions in participants’ generalized anxiety symptoms and psychological inflexibility, and increases in their life satisfaction, recovery from mental health challenges, and sense of well-being.” In accordance with the quantitative outcomes, the youth’s qualitative feedback highlighted the advances made in managing their anxiety and cultivating healthy coping strategies to increase their overall well-being. One participant of the Mindfulness Group commented, “I've really learned how to use my anxiety as a tool. Instead of anticipating or resisting it, I've become more mindful and curious about it. I feel a lot more at peace with my thoughts now.”

What are some of the pilot program approaches that have endured?

While speaking to Sarah Blackmore, it was clear that deliberate approaches to curriculum development, methodology, evaluation, and youth engagement had been purposefully and intuitively incorporated into the program from the onset. What initially attracted Sarah in 2015 was the program's unique approach to mental wellness, which aligned well with her own Counselling methodology.

The team received full consent from Matt Boone (Cornell University’ Counselling and Psychological Services, 2014) to adapt and pair his original Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) curriculum with mindfulness techniques. This adaptation facilitated the development of a distinct approach tailored to the needs of the Y Mind participants. This framework focuses on building participant’s self-awareness, guiding them to identify their values and take actionable steps to change their relationship with anxiety. Sarah’s passion, and knowledge of the program’s methodology were apparent in her articulation of the benefits of mindfulness for mental wellness: “Mindfulness is particularly helpful for anxiety because when we’re anxious we’re often projecting ourselves into the future. Mindfulness is about re-engaging with the present moment.”   

Complementing the program's forward-thinking mandate, was the commitment to incorporate youth perspectives at every stage of the strategic process. From the beginning, the founders were adamant about ensuring youth programming was bottom-up and strength-based. This included the development of a Youth Advisory Council, which guaranteed that the youth voice was central to the program's growth. Since its inception, youth voices have influenced everything from the name of the program, to the marketing and promotion material, to the program curriculum, and evaluation process.

Another purposeful element integrated from the onset was an analysis of both quantitative and qualitative evaluative components - obtained through a partnership with the McCreary Centre Society - that measured the impact of the program over time. As Sarah insisted, this dedication to both evaluative forms sprang from the founders' (Elizabeth Sabine & Anuschka Naidoo) genuine curiosity as to whether the program effectively increased positive outcomes for youth experiencing anxiety. Sarah remains determined to involve youth in the evaluative process; participants are not only empowered to reflect on their growth over a short period of time, but they are also endowed with a sense of agency and ownership over the evaluation tools and process.

What is the current status of the program?

In 2017, the B.C. Ministry of Health granted the YMCA three million dollars over three years to expand the pilot project to 25 sites across the province of B.C. In addition to the 25 sites, the YMCA is offering a culturally adapted version of the program, Mind Medicine, that is currently being piloted in six Indigenous communities across the province. This was in response to the low turnout of Indigenous youth at the Mindfulness Groups. Samantha explained that the origin of the name comes from the YMCA Indigenous Advisory Committee - “The idea of good medicine in community. The medicine wheel isn’t used by all of the different Indigenous communities in B.C. and so what our consultant was trying to do was provide something that was appropriate and respectful for the different nations.” In the hope of creating an inclusive and safe environment for Indigenous youth, the team plans to incorporate the pilot program learnings into the existing Y Mind curriculum.

What is the plan for the future of the program?

As the program continues to shift and grow it will expand across the province for another year. What started off as a grassroots project has now established itself as an extensive and multi-level system of support spanning communities across B.C. Bringing the story full circle, the Y Mind program currently partners with the Counselling Psychology program at SFU in order to support practicum students to co-deliver the program and bring their own gifts to the community.

Looking to the future, Director for Strategic Partnerships Samantha Hartley-Folz reminds us that competition for funding is fierce, yet the hope is that the data will prove itself once again and funding is renewed. Additionally, Samantha emphasizes the importance of trust and fidelity in building capacity in smaller community organizations so as to support the sustainability of the programs.

Where are each of you at now in your careers?

As the program continues to meet success, so too has each of the Counselling alumni continued to grow professionally as counsellors and community advocates.

After a ten-year career at the YMCA, beginning in front-line services and ending as the Director of Community Health in 2017, Elizabeth has contributed immensely to the development of mental wellness programming in the organization. Elizabeth has now moved to UBC as a Resident Wellness Counsellor for the Faculty of Medicine, where she provides free counselling to all resident physicians and their spouses during the course of their residency.

Anuschka spent her first years at the YMCA as a youth facilitator for employment programs. After the initial pilot of the Youth Mindfulness Group, Anuschka moved into the newly established Mental Wellness department as Mental Wellness Coordinator where she continued to apply her counselling skills with youth. Her position grew and she became Manager of Mental Wellness Programs, where she played a larger role in program development, strategic planning and partnerships. In 2019 Anuschka was motivated to further develop her clinical skills by providing direct counselling services to students and accepted a position at Douglas College. Now Anuschka offers one-on-one counseling in Student Affair and Services at Douglas College, where she brings the Y Mind program learnings to her work with post-secondary students. 

Sarah remains at the Y providing leadership to the mental wellness programs. Starting on the front-lines in 2015, then working as a program coordinator, and now supporting the provincial scope and managing all Mental Wellness Programs at the YMCA, Sarah has respectfully carried on Elizabeth and Anuschka’s original mandate. Sarah continues to retain the intended purpose of the program, and find fresh and compelling ways to cultivate this small success story.

From being Counselling grad students, to practicum students and finally working together at the YMCA, the three women have discovered friendship and success far beyond their expectations. Elizabeth and Auschka both expressed their sustained connections with the Y Mind program and with Sarah, as the three continue to work together once a week at Peak Resilience, a private practice that offers feminist-based therapy. From humble beginnings, the Y Mind program continues to foster a community of collaboration and sharing that stays true to the bold vision initiated by Elizabeth and Anuschka four years ago.

To partner with the YMCA please contact Samantha Hartley-Folz – Samantha.hartley-folz@gv.ymca.ca

The YMCA is actively recruiting program participants between the ages of 18-30 for the spring/summer delivery of the 7-week program. The groups will be running at the Robert Lee YMCA in downtown Vancouver and at the Surrey Central Library in partnership with SFU. If you or anyone you know may be interested please contact – youthmindfulness@gv.ymca.ca. The Teen Mindfulness Group (ages 13-17) will pick up again in the fall and is also delivered in both Vancouver and Surrey, for this program please contact – teenmindfulness@gv.ymca.ca.