Written by Tara K. Ross
Journeying with youth through mental health challenges
A pair of scuffed black Vans appear below the edge of the games table. Jana, a regular at the Friday night drop-in, shifts her weight from one foot to the other, eyeing my splayed cards. She slams a coil-bound notebook on the table next to my hand.
I glance up. “What’s this?” I tap at her book and then discard an eight that has been plaguing me the entire hand.
Her lips press into a flat line. In the high arch of her one eyebrow she communicates how absent-minded she thinks I am. Wait. This is not any book. “Is this what I think it is?”
She nods in slow motion. After six months of small talk on the front steps, this one gesture brings me more joy than any of the forced words we’ve exchanged. She’s ready. She’s going to let me in.
I knew Jana was in a bad place the first night she showed up at the doors of our youth centre. Her reluctance to enter, the complete lack of words and the cuts on her arms were enough warning signs.
Her parents filled us in on the rest. She had struggled on and off with anxiety and now had a formal diagnosis of depression. She attended counseling most weeks but refused meds. Her parents were encouraged to find a safe place for her to build relationships away from the pressures of school, but she had no interest in sports or clubs. The drop-in was their only other option.
So, we welcomed her. We made it her safe place. No pressure. And she kept coming.
We sit down on the cracked leather couch in the corner of the room, and I begin to leaf through a notebook packed with block-letter words.
Jana picks at the line of scabs on her forearm. With a voice more matched to a kindergarten student than her 16-year-old, five-foot-nine self, she whispers, “I’ve never shown this to anyone. None of them are good.”
I lean forward. “Who told you that?”
“Me.” She shakes her head, pulls the notebook from me and fans it open to one of the last pages. “I wrote this one after you shared your story.” She hands it back to me and disappears out the front door.
For the next ten minutes, I travel through Jana’s creative world. She first carves out a dismal landscape void of resources. Then, she narrates from a protagonist who has no direction, far too many choices, a stifling fear of failure, and zero training to survive. She’s poetic but pained as she shares what is clearly her own fall into obscurity—a hero without hope. Her story opens scarred wounds from my own journey as a teen. My heart aches for her.
There is something to be said about putting yourself out there. For Jana, it took months of trust-building and finding the right medium to be vulnerable. Speaking didn’t work for her. But storytelling did. Through a fictional story, she described what many young people today struggle to articulate about their mental health—loneliness, unrelenting fear, self-deprecation, an endless maze with no way out.
These mental demons bombard one in four teens within our communities and all too often we don’t know which quarter are the hurting ones. As youth leaders, we have the remarkable opportunity to come alongside them and offer a captive audience for their grievances. With time and trust, we can then offer a different narrative to reshape their stories around.
We can provide them with a medium of light to contrast their dark canvas against. We can present a soundtrack that resonates with the unexplored anthems in their lives. In partnership with counsellors, doctors, family, and friends, we can help them rewrite their stories with the best ending ever. An ending that offers eternal hope.
Jana returns as silently as she left. The cold from her jacket adds to the goosebumps already formed on my arms. This time I have no words. I can only nod. I’ve heard you.
She matches my nod in quivering micromovements. I wrap my arms around her and we stay like that until the card games end and the chairs are put away.