Building Empathy through Dialogue

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I’ve been privileged to attend each of the International Association for Youth Mental Health Conferences since the first conference was held in Melbourne in 2010 attending first as a PhD student and then as someone leading programs within the NGO sector.

Regardless of where the event has headed in the world since then – Brighton, Montreal and now Dublin – what I’ve loved about the IAYMH is the way in which each conference has been planned and delivered in genuine partnership with young people. Young people’s involvement in these conferences has been intentional from the outset, with young people involved in planning, as speakers, co-facilitators and delegates in a well-resourced, meaningful and considered way.

The opportunity to learn from young people’s experiences and to engage in respectful, meaningful and thought provoking conversation with them alongside researchers, policymakers and practitioners is incredibly value to me as someone working in the sector. It helps me to reflect on what’s working, what’s not and to think differently about how to respond to challenges.

While we’ve made enormous progress in my home country of Australia and internationally in addressing stigma relating to high prevalence disorders like Anxiety and Depression in the past two decades, there is still an enormous amount of work to be done to address stigma relating to complex mental illnesses.

One of the best ways to address stigma is to create opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds and experiences to come together in dialogue. It builds empathy, respect and understanding and creates an environment for change. By bringing together such as diverse collection of people, the IAYMH conference does just that.

One of the highlights of the last conference in Montreal for me was the opportunity to co-facilitate a pre-conference workshop with the two young Co-Convenors of the conference Alicia and Aidan where we teamed up with the crew from LifeHack in New Zealand to explore the role of co-design in creating new solutions to challenges facing young people’s mental health. Despite being usually located in four different timezones and having only met in person the day before, we were able to draw on each other’s strengths and unique perspectives to develop a session which challenged people to think differently about youth participation. The end result was certainly something that was greater than the sum of it’s parts, which for me reflects the importance of collaboration in improving mental health and wellbeing. Many of the themes we explored in that workshop are picked up again in this year’s program.

One of the things I am looking forward to the most about this September’s conference in Dublin is hearing keynotes from new voices like Fae Johnstone, Lisa Butterly and Natasha Devon and know that they will add so much to our understanding of working with young people.

Their voices, alongside concurrent streams co-chaired by young people and a commitment to facilitating discussion in a way that values young people’s expertise alongside that of researchers and practitioners means we are set for a wonderful few days in Dublin.

Look forward to seeing you in September.

Dr Michelle Blanchard, General Manager Policy, Research and Programs, SANE Australia