Student Perspectives: Lena Schreyer on community outreach and youth mental health

Every year, one in five Canadian youth will struggle with a mental health concern and only 20 per cent will receive the support they need. Lena Schreyer, a fourth-year Neuroscience student, is working to address this gap as the Founder and Director of Beecuz, a non-profit organization that develops proactive and positive wellness education programs for children and youth.

Schreyer is a Scholar’s Elective student and received the 3M National Student Fellowship Award in 2020, which honours students for outstanding leadership in their lives, communities and schools. 

Why did you create Beecuz?

I created Beecuz to address a gap in the mental health care system. The traditional approach to mental health care is reactive: It involves responding to problems after they arise and helping people in crisis situations. But what we really need, and what Beecuz offers, is a proactive approach to mental health care. We need to give children the skills, resources and tools to thrive in the face of adversity before they’re in a crisis situation.

To better understand our approach, I often ask people to think about the following question: If you didn’t know how to swim, would you rather have a lifesaver thrown to you after you’re already drowning, or be given a lifejacket to help protect you from drowning? When I ask the question like this, the answer seems obvious – you’d prefer the lifejacket. A proactive approach to mental health care sets children up for success by giving them a lifejacket, and that is exactly what Beecuz programs aim to do. Better yet, Beecuz teaches children how to swim.

Why is mental health education for children and youth important to you? 

When I was growing up, I was a happy, carefree and easygoing child. I was the captain of my soccer team, top student in my class, and a leader in the community. But when I was 12 years old, I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and a severe eating disorder. I found myself feeling lost, hopeless and worthless. Unfortunately, my experience is not uncommon. Every year, one in five Canadian youth will struggle with a mental health concern and only 20 per cent of those children will receive the support they need.

It took me many years to recover and reconnect with that happy, healthy young girl that everyone knew me to be. My experiences were incredibly humbling, in part because I always felt that mental illness was something that affected ‘other’ people. But mental illness does not discriminate – it affects people of all ages, ethnicities, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds. More importantly, I came to see mental health as equivalent to physical health. Not everyone has a mental illness, but everyone has mental health, and like physical health, there are things that we can do to take care of our mental health.

Improving youth mental health literacy and creating a safe space for youth to learn about and apply positive strategies for taking care of their mental health is critical to reducing mental illness stigma as well as the prevalence of mental illness.

You participated in an Impact Experience in Guatemala in early 2020. What did you learn from this experience? 

This Impact Experience trip was collaboratively organized by Western and Operation Groundswell, a student travel organization that is dedicated to creating socially conscious and globally active travellers. Our trip was called Brewing Justice with the idea being that we would follow a coffee bean from seed to shelf, while examining the inequities of a global marketplace, connecting with social entrepreneurs and innovative retailers, and working alongside local producers.

Near the end of the trip we travelled to Santa Anita, a community in Western Guatemala, home to a unique coffee cooperative founded by ex-Guerilla fighters. We stayed in family homes, which gave us the opportunity to build personal connections and deepen our understanding of the coffee revolution. The community was small, with only a handful of homes lining two streets, a school, and a small variety store, surrounded by coffee plantations. But Santa Anita’s small size was not representative of the community members’ big hearts and open arms. We were welcomed like family. Rooms were cleared and children slept on couches to ensure that we’d be comfortable, feasts were prepared to ensure that we weren’t hungry, and stories were shared to help us grasp the history of the Guatemalan civil war and the injustices that prevail. We worked on the coffee farms, played soccer with the children, cooked corn tortillas and engaged in a lot of charades to overcome language barriers. 

I left Santa Anita reminded about the importance of community and the power of connection. Seeing a community so strongly united and so welcoming to strangers gave me pause. Western societies often take an individualized approach to life and success. People are ashamed to ask for help and often engage in competition with each other. My experience in Santa Anita challenged me to redefine success because, at the end of the day, a person can only succeed when their community succeeds. Since returning from Guatemala, I have tried to place more emphasis on nurturing relationships, building community connections and welcoming people with open arms, similar to how those families welcomed us into their lives and hearts.

What inspires you to contribute to community initiatives and programs? 

For me, contributing to community initiatives is about giving back, creating positive change, and engaging in continuous learning. Many of my volunteer activities involve working with people at a vulnerable time (like families at Ronald McDonald House), people of different abilities (like the riders at SARI Therapeutic Riding) or people with less privilege (like the Ghanaian girls I am connecting with through Create Change). In each of these volunteer positions, I am able to give back to the community with my time, kindness, and compassion. The four hours that I put towards delivering coffee to parents whose children are in the hospital or to helping someone move from a wheelchair onto a horse, are hours that might very well change someone’s life. Taking the time to engage in a friendly conversation, share a smile, or encourage independence might seem small to me but for someone else, those actions might be what gets them through the day.

Beyond giving back, I believe that contributing to community initiatives and programs is a way for me to keep an open mind and to challenge myself to learn something new every day. Engaging with such a diverse group of people has left me aware of my privilege and power. It has made me more mindful and considerate of other people’s experiences and it has helped me build empathy and compassion. These experiences remind me of our common humanity and challenge me to be my best self.

As a Scholar’s Elective student, you’ve been involved with a number of research projects. How has research impacted your learning experience? 

Since my first day at Western, I have been fascinated by the innovative and ground-breaking research being conducted here. Engaging in research as an undergraduate student has challenged me to be at the forefront of science, to be an innovative learner and to engage in life with greater curiosity. My research experience has been incredibly diverse, which has not only helped me develop a greater breadth of knowledge and skills, but also helped me understand my passions and interests.

Too often, students enter university feeling like they need to have their entire future decided – we feel pressured to have our lives figured out and we settle on a single career path. For the first two years of my undergrad, I had no idea what I was doing. My family and friends can confirm that I probably cycled through every career path and that every day I was talking about something new. I tried to keep an open mind, to engage in everything that Western has to offer, and to use these years to better understand myself and what drives me to get out of bed every morning. I think that research challenged me to engage in this process more deeply. By reading journal articles, asking critical questions, learning different skills and interacting with innovative ideas, I’ve been able to get a strong sense of what I enjoy, and I feel more confident in my ability to succeed in whatever career path I choose for my future.