Mental Health
3 min

Youth Line celebrates 20 years

The support service updates its look, services and technology for LGBT kids across Ontario

As media and communications have changed, so has Youth Line. It has adapted to the internet and cellphone-based kid culture by re-branding with a new website that offers a variety of ways to reach out for help. Credit: Youth Line

Xtra Spark profiles current activism in our communities. This article stems from a partnership between Xtra Spark and Youthline, in which we are supporting their organization with targeted media coverage that gives our readership pathways to take action.

It’s been 20 years since Youth Line first opened its phones to the gay, lesbian, bi, trans and questioning youth of Ontario. The concept was as simple as it was desperately needed: to provide peer-based phone support in an effort to alleviate the isolation felt by so many queer youth. By lending an empathetic ear, along with support resources,Youth Line’s founders hoped to prevent youth from making self-destructive choices in the face of prejudice, rejection and loneliness.

Times have certainly changed in the past two decades, but Youth Line remains an essential support service to the LGBTQ youth of Ontario. Sure, we may have gay marriage and a level of social acceptance, but there are still too many queer kids being thrown out of their homes, bullied at school and feeling as though their lives are over before they’ve really begun. As media and communications have changed, so has the support group adapted to the internet and cellphone-based kid culture — something Youth Line is hoping to highlight by rebranding with a new website, developed by Pilot Interactive,  that offers a variety of ways to reach out for help.

“We really did need to streamline and update our image,” says Jeff Cooke, current board of directors member and  project manager behind Youth Line’s new look. “We’re celebrating our 20th anniversary anyway, so it was the perfect time to make some changes. We wanted to celebrate the past, while modernizing for the audience we’re targeting as they change their own consumption habits. We have to keep up with them.”

Though Youth Line has been offering support through online chat and texting for some time, the organization felt it could do more to move beyond its old public image as solely a telephone support service. This meant an updated logo, along with a dynamic new website that can be easily accessed from a mobile device.

“Our old site was, frankly, clunky,” Cooke admits. “We have a really extensive referral database vetted by our volunteers and accessible through our old site, but it was clunky and very hard to search for what you were looking for.”

It also tended to stick out like a sore thumb on the screen and required a degree of personal information for chatting online — a definite hazard when it came to closeted kids accessing the site from home or a potentially unsafe public terminal.

“We used to offer our online chat through MSN,” Cooke says. “Now it’s just your basic generic chat window. It’s completely anonymous, so you don’t need to add us to your MSN friends list. We’ve also added a quick hide button at the top right corner that you can click to instantly take you away from our page in case someone comes up behind you while you’re chatting.”

While the organization prides itself on providing caring, anonymous support to their audience, the board realized that perhaps they needed to be a little more visible about who they are and what they do — not only to attract donors, but also to give youth an idea of who they were talking with.

“We’re intended to be an anonymous service, so a lot of our content fell into that anonymous zone,” Cooke explains. “It left our organization a bit faceless and maybe unapproachable, so we wanted to give a bit of a face to the organization. Now we have staff photos and profiles, and you can look at our financials, goals and fundraising efforts easily on the website.”

And though two decades have passed since their inception, it seems the callers, texters and chatters are still concerned about issues similar to the gay youth of yesteryear.

“It really is the same sort of conversations,” Cooke says. “We get reports from the service coordinators from all the types of chats they’re having through the mediums we offer, and it’s generally the same three topics: relationships, bullying and questioning.”

Cooke points out that even though the service is still kept busy with texts, calls and online chat, not all the stories they hear are dismal or distressing — many kids just reach out to discuss relationship issues, either because they can’t talk about such things with their family and friends, or simply in order to discuss them with peers who have been there themselves.

“We’re here to listen, no matter what you want to talk about, or how you want to reach us,” Cooke says. “We’re always here.”