A fourth year Queen’s student has been named the recipient of the Sharon Johnston Youth Award, one of seven Champions of Mental Health awards handed out by the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health (CAMIMH).

Ervis Musa, a health sciences student at Queen’s completing a certificate in Disability and Physical Activity, received the award primarily in recognition of three student led initiatives that aim to assist other students in establishing a stronger foundation to build from.

Musa’s approach to mental health through these programs comes from more of a health and well being promotion perspective rather than advocacy and awareness.

The first of three projects was NetworkU, a platform started by himself and some friends where incoming Queen’s students could sign up to be mentored by a student already attending the university and receive tips on things like academics and maintaining some kind of social life in the midst of the pandemic.

Musa said when he and friends looked for a mentorship opportunity of this kind, they found that the university was too bogged down in pandemic response and planning to offer anything of the sort.

With a newly found abundance of freetime thanks to COVID-19 coupled with what they identified as a need in the Queen’s community, he says they were eager to find a way to help.

“We kind of just saw it as an opportunity to help out and kind of act as that liaison for them for a short period,” Musa said.

“It was pretty neat to be kind of a part of something especially during a time when everyone was kind of scoundering and nervous not knowing what’s going forward or happening.”

Musa says while that program is no longer functional, early in the pandemic over 300 mentors and 400 mentees registered, with check ins in the coming months showing an 80% retention rate.

In the course of this, the primary concerns of incoming students started to become clear and in response Musa started two other organizations: Easy A Tutoring which offered basic, free tutoring to youth, and a program which offered real estate/living advice to youth called AdviseMe Real Estate.

Musa says with the unexpected extra time he and his peers had, they wanted to pass their experience on to incoming students to help alleviate whatever stress they could.

“We were just doing our best really that summer to take advantage of the time, realize where people had the greatest amount of stress and just kind of reduce that,” Musa said.

“The pandemic just caused a whirlwind of personal circumstances and situations that people just could not control. We just kind of had to take that opportunity and see where we could play our part and help out where we could… I feel like in a community the best thing you can do is kind of identify stressors and kind of take that upstream approach to reduce them before they even become anything.”

Musa says while there was a fair amount of work to initially get platforms up and running, it was really the community support that was responsible for their success.

He said without a supportive community ready to take the next steps on, the platform would not have experienced the same success.

“Within the Queen’s community and the Kingston community there’s a strong support for that concept of connectedness and togetherness, and everyone’s more than willing to contribute to it,” Musa said

“That’s honestly the only reason why those organizations became successful. It’s not because of anything me or my peers did, it was moreso the response from the community and that eagerness to help.”

The Champions of Mental Health Awards are handed out annually to seven recipients in different categories and are meant to identify individuals and groups who are doing great work in their community with mental health and highlight the importance of mental health.

Florence Budden, Champions Chair at CAMIMH, says that the awards handed out highlight the achievements of individuals, but also look to raise awareness of the gap that still exists in mental health care in the country and world.

“Mental health needs to be on par with all other aspects of health in their funding and support,” Budden said.

“But I think the biggest thing is to say thank you and to celebrate Canadians in all different areas who are doing such great work across this country in cities, in rural communities, in universities, everywhere to support and promote the health of Canadians and the mental health of Canadians.”

Budden commended Musa’s work in promoting mental health from an overall wellness perspective, recognizing health as a whole as an important part of mental well being.

She said CAMIMH hopes that bringing focus to the work of Musa and other individuals helps to show everyone, and particularly youth, that they too can play a role in promoting positive mental health.

“They provide hope and inspiration to Canadians,” Budden said.

“That yes, you can do it too, that you are not alone, that we see you and we see everything that you’re doing and hopefully that might inspire some other individuals to get involved as well.”

Like Musa, Budden believes strongly that youth absolutely should have a voice and a hand in identifying and deciding what is necessary to promote mental well being.

She and Musa both agree, with all mental health related issues people with lived experience can have tremendously valuable insight.

“People with lived or living experience of mental health issues or substance use or anything need to be part of the policy creation,” Budden said.

“That’s what’s important, that voices are heard by people who are experiencing it.”

CAMIMH will hold a gala on October 5th to celebrate the recipients of these awards, more information on Musa’s work and the other Champions can be found here.