Noah Irvine was hoping to inspire change in Ottawa after losing both his parents to mental illnesses.
But his bid – individual letters to each of the 336 MPs in the federal government last winter, sent through the post – fell almost completely on deaf ears. So he decided to go public and personally deliver his message in Ottawa.
“It’s not just important to me, it should be important to every Canadian across the country,” 17-year-old Irvine said in an interview on Parliament Hill while visiting family in Ottawa.
“Mental health doesn’t just affect me, it affects everybody.”
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Irvine mailed his letters about six months ago (there were vacancies in the House of Commons at the time), but only 40 MPs responded, he said; none of the current federal leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among those.
So he went to his local newspaper.
“Yes, MPs are busy. There’s no doubt about that. But for six months I’ve been waiting for responses from almost 300 members of Parliament,” he said.
“If we have to wait six months for responses from members of Parliament, I think there’s something wrong about that.”
Irvine’s letter opens with his story: His mother killed herself when she was 24 years old and he was five; his father died of a drug overdose two years ago at the age of 40.
Then Irvine dives into the national picture.
“Suicide is an epidemic in Ontario and Canada as we lose too many people every year, from First Nations and Canadian youth, to men and women in uniform, and my mother,” he wrote.
After going public, Irvine received a call from Health Minister Jane Philpott.
Then he got a call from the Prime Minister’s Office to set up a same-day meeting with one of Trudeau’s advisers. Prior to Wednesday afternoon’s meeting with the Prime Minister’s Office, Irvine said he was hoping to discuss the possibility of setting up a mental health secretariat within the PMO, similar to the Liberal government’s 2017 budget pledge to create a LGBTQ2 secretariat.
From individual MPs, Irvine said he wanted them, among other things, to engage with the electorate.
“I was challenging them to engage with their constituents, to understand the toll that mental health takes on their constituents, and understand what the caregivers of the mentally ill go through, and what survivors of suicides go through,” he said.
The teenager also called on members of Parliament to push for a national suicide prevention strategy – a few steps beyond the “framework” currently in play.
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Irvine still hasn’t heard directly from a majority of MPs – including the prime minister, NDP leader Tom Mulcair and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer – despite his public campaign. Global News contacted the offices of all leaders to ask why they hadn’t responded to Irvine’s letter.
Scheer’s office did not provide an answer.
Mulcair’s, however, provided a statement apologizing to Irvine for not responding “to his important letter.”
The NDP leader echoed the high school student’s sentiment of how widespread the effects of mental health are in Canada.
“Unfortunately, Noah understands that better than most … The NDP wholeheartedly agrees with Noah’s push for a national mental health strategy and we will continue to fight so that all Canadians have access to the services they need,” the statement read.
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A spokesperson for the prime minister told Global News that “while a response to Noah’s letter is working its way through the system, the prime minister will be reaching out to Noah directly to listen to him and discuss ways that, as a country, we can better support people facing health challenges.”
Though many MPs were silent, Irvine’s local MP from Guelph, Ont., Lloyd Longfield, was among the first to get in touch and take the cause on with his young constituent. Engaging youth on the matter of mental illness is one of the most important ways to break down barriers and stigma around the issue, Irvine said.
“Yes, I’m writing from Guelph, but this affects everyone across the country,” Irvine said.
Irvine says he’s very aware the problems he’s trying to fix are not simple.
“I don’t expect this crisis to be solved within a day. I expect that this will take a lot of time and a lot more engagement from the public,” he said. “I am fully aware of that.”