Buddy Check for Jesse works to increase awareness around mental health in youth, aiming to destigmatize asking for help.
The Victoria-based organization was created to give coaches the tools they need to talk to kids about the importance of taking care of mental health and getting ahead of issues by reaching out, and looking out.
The program was established in 2018 in honour of Jesse Short-Gershman, a 22-year-old who died by suicide in 2014. After his death, his father Stu Gershman, felt a calling to bring awareness to mental health issues and support kids and young adults who might be struggling.
In the world of sports, physical injuries are commonly talked about and treated without stigma. Gershman’s goal is to make mental health the same.
Gershman said a buddy check can be as simple as putting your arm around someone and letting them know you’re there, or telling them it’s OK to reach out if they need help.
“It doesn’t have to be an in-depth, deep, dark discussion to check on somebody,” Gershman said. “We all go through stuff and you can’t always tell what somebody is feeling on the inside by looking at them. People go through stuff and it is invisible.”
The organization provides tools for coaches, who Gershman believes hold a unique position in society, to share with the young lives they impact.
As coaches are youth leaders and in an environment kids typically choose to be in, Gershman said they can often break through to them in a way parents and others can’t. He said the role of coaching involves more than just instilling the rules of the game, it is an opportunity to build life skills as well.
“You have a group of youth around you that are looking to you for guidance and looking to you for mentorship and looking to you to model behaviour,” he said. “Everybody’s got challenges, and a coach bringing that up is generally not expected, but the coach is a powerful role model in being able to do that with the youth, who are paying attention to them.”
The whole idea came to Gershman when he was helping to coach his two younger sons’ hockey team. Before each game, he would talk to the team about Jesse and encourage them to treat each other like a family, supporting their teammates just as if they were siblings.
The sports community is just a starting point for the organization. A larger goal of Buddy Check for Jesse is to mould young minds into the type of people who will continue to check in with those around them and work to create a future where talking about mental health is stigma-free.
“More than 70 per cent of mental illnesses start before the age of 19, so what we’ve seen is message-building,” Gershman said.
The program has had first-hand experience in seeing an increase in people and youth talking about mental health.
“More youth, coaches and families are reaching out personally to myself and our small team about the benefits they’ve seen,” he said.
As a small team, Gershman said he is contacted often by a number of people providing personal stories about how implementing the program has been beneficial for them.
“It seems to be making an impact, just the conversation of it,” he said.
He said awareness is increasing, partly due to the inclusion of the colour green, which signifies mental health and creates a space for conversation.
“That’s a big part of what we do,” Gershman said. “That colour, it really helps to bring people together and show that they have a common purpose. It’s something that has an impact on people remembering what Buddy Check is, when they see the green.”
Coaches and others interested in participating in Buddy Check for Jesse can visit buddycheckforjesse.com for resources and how-to examples. People can also reach out to Gershman and his team through the website for individual support.
If you or someone you know is struggling, call the provincial suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-suicide (1-800-784-2433), or visit crisislines.bc.ca to find local mental health and crisis resources.