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Youth Speak Out on Engagement


The Northwest Toronto Service Collaborative is a group of service providers and community memberswho are finding ways to improve services for children, youth and families with mental health and addictions needs in North York and City of York.

“The meaningful engagement of individuals with lived experience changes everything. True or false?”

That is the question that was asked of four members of the Northwest Toronto Service Collaborative’s Youth Advisory Group.

These young people have been offering their input into a systems change initiative in North York and City of York called Peer Positive. This initiative is working to support community service providers to engage ‘peers’ as equal partners in the design, delivery, and review of services.

Throughout this process we’ve been discussing what it actually means to engage people with lived experience as equal partners in service provision. Here are a few excerpts from responses provided by of our members. To read their complete responses, visit the Service Collaboratives website here.

Arlen Ninon
“Individuals with lived experience have an important voice in the development of mental health and addiction systems and services. They can enrich discussions by bringing realistic perspectives about their experiences using services to identify issues and suggest solutions with which they are familiar.

However, I do not think that individuals with lived experience can change everything alone. Their voice needs to be heard by influential people in the system and be understood as important so that long-term change can be created.”

Sindu Ananthakumar
“My involvement in systems-level work has led me to realize that youth advisory groups should strive to be critically reflective support networks that challenge the typical ways that systems-level work takes place, and the ways that it can affect mental health users/survivors.

One suggestion I can offer is to draw on the power of narratives or storytelling. Personal stories allow fresh perspectives that aren’t commonly found in the educational backgrounds of professionals who work with service users. Their use can better allow for the meaningful engagement of people who might otherwise feel silenced or ashamed because of clinical labels they have been given.”

Ryan Moore
“The value of engaging individuals with lived experience has been noted throughout history. But there is something prohibiting our ability to move forward; perhaps it is fear – fear of losing power, fear of the unknown, fear of knowing you don’t know.

Yet we still live in a society in which bureaucracies consistently stifle progress of all kinds. This kind of societal “group think” keeps people from becoming agents of change, and instead, they contribute to a stagnating system.”

Rachel Cooper
“Unfortunately, the balance of the mental health system’s power tips in favor of trained professionals, schooled in medicine and psychology. Service users are often told what is good for them and what they should do, ignoring the individual’s lived experience.

Providing service users an opportunity to give voice to their past and present experiences, along with their future hopes, goals, and dreams allows professionals to better understand the service user, and to see them beyond the labels they have been given.”

What do you think? Do you have any thoughts about how people with lived experience can become engaged at the systems level? Maybe you’ve seen this work in practice?

We’d love to hear from you! Leave us a comment below and let’s start the discussion!

To find out more about this initiative visit: or contact Josina Vink (Regional Implementation Coordinator).

For more information about the Peer Positive initiative, check out this video:


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