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People make change. Partnerships make a difference.

Thursday, January 15, 2015Alexandra Fortier, Andrea Kirkham, Natasha McBrearty and Sabrina Merali

The Youth Mental Health and Addiction Champion (YMHAC) project is a joint initiative led  by the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO) in partnership with six public health units from across Ontario. Their aim is to improve the health and well-being of children and youth through a focus on mental health promotion, substance misuse prevention, and understanding of mental illness and reduction of related stigma.

Looking to build on the exciting work that is happening across the province around youth engagement and mental health promotion, they partnered with young people, public health units, school boards, mental health leads, teachers, and the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health (the Centre).

Here’s some of what Sabrina Merali from RNAO, Alexandra Fortier from School Mental Health ASSIST, Andrea Kirkham from and Natasha McBrearty from the Centre had to say about the partnership.

  1. What value do partnerships bring to the child and youth mental health sector and why?

Natasha (the Centre): Bringing partners from health, education, children and youth services and young people together at the planning table for this project has benefited everyone involved. It’s allowed us to share knowledge and resources from our respective organizations to enhance the work, avoid unnecessary duplication and deepen our collective understanding of youth engagement as an evidence-informed practice. It’s also given us an opportunity to work towards a common goal through our different mandates by thinking through the project from different angles and priorities. Ultimately it’s improved the intention of the project by broadening its scope beyond the confines of a single sector.

For the Centre, it’s been a mutually beneficial partnership. We’ve been able to share our experience with youth engagement, and in turn we’re learning from RNAO through their implementation of this project. Also, learning how collaboratively develops health promotion products with youth will undoubtedly improve how we work with our stakeholders to co-produce learning resources at the Centre.

Andrea (  When it comes to improving the health and wellbeing of young people, partnerships are key. We know that we do our best work when we are partnering with others with the aim of sharing results and resources. It isn’t helpful for programs to work in silos and duplicate each other’s efforts, especially given that resources are stretched thin at times.

Alexandra (SMH ASSIST): Each of the above partners has skills, knowledge, experience and ideas to bring any mental health promotion initiative to a successful completion. The added benefits of working collaboratively are learning from each other, seeing a situation through different lenses and ultimately offering an outcome that goes above and beyond what was initially imagined. In other words, alone we can make a change, whereas together, we can make a difference.


  1. In your experience, what are the key elements to developing a good partnership?

Natasha (the Centre): The team at RNAO really values the contribution of partners, facilitating a process where partners are meaningfully engaged. From the start, RNAO created a culture of joint-ownership. As a partner, I feel a great sense of responsibility to the success of this project. RNAO also put a lot of effort into ongoing and frequent communication which has allowed partners to collaborate and work through challenges as they arise.

Sabrina (RNAO): Inclusion and a sense of a common purpose are key elements in developing a good partnership. Valuing each partner’s voice and understanding what they bring to the table is crucially important. We each bring our strengths. Valuing and respecting that is key. For example, the Centre played an important role of bringing the youth voice to the project. From that partnership, it was possible to have youth included on our Provincial Advisory Committee. Youth will also be leading our centralized training which was made possible through our strong partnerships with the Centre and

Alexandra (SMH ASSIST): The foundational elements to ensuring a good partnership are: including your key partners from the get go (this way the planning can be done collectively and each participant then feels ownership of the success of the project) and communicating efficiently (ensuring that all stakeholders have the same information in a timely fashion and listening to the views, opinions and expertise of the group, then adjusting the plan accordingly).

RNAO and the Public Health Units (PHU) have really modeled good partnerships and inclusion in this project. They included their key stakeholders at all levels of the planning process: provincially, through the advisory committee, and locally through the steering committees. They also communicated regularly through various tactics (meetings, teleconferences, emails, webinars…) and they listened intently to their partners and accommodated to the various realities of each region of the Province to ensure that the goal of the project was met.

Andrea ( I think the key to a good partnership is acknowledging what everyone has brought to the table in a meaningful way.  When works with young people, our greatest ongoing partners, we acknowledge that they are the experts in their own lives. Sometimes we are brought into projects to engage youth in creating resources where we are not the content experts, which means stepping back and acknowledging the expertise and experience of our other partners. Bringing people to the table early on in a process is also key, and being adaptable to needs on an ongoing basis. 


  1. What are some steps to take if a partnership is failing?

Natasha (the Centre): At one point, we hit a bit of a wall with planning a centralized training event. We were spending time on teleconferences but seemed to be struggling with landing on our deliverable. RNAO initiated a face-to-face meeting which was invaluable in moving the project forward. It was not only useful in putting faces to names (we had never met in person) but it really helped cement the partnership by creating connections. For me, this highlighted that while tele/videoconferencing is efficient and cost-effective, there’s something important that happens when people come together, even once, to move the partnership forward. 

Sabrina Merali (RNAO):  When partnerships take a bit of a downfall, it’s very important to remember your common purpose: What started the partnership? What is your goal? Why are you working together? What are the needs and priorities of stakeholders? It’s also important to evaluate where you’re at and reflect on whether the group has met its objectives. There are excellent community mobilization activities that can help in plotting the group’s history and events to determine next steps.

Alexandra (SMH ASSIST): We need to remember that partnerships are relationships that were brought together by a common goal/purpose/activity. I agree with what my colleagues have mentioned: remember the reason why we are partnering and take a step back to take stock to see what has been accomplished.

I would also add:

  • Clarify as a group why we feel that the partnership is failing (is there an elephant in the room?).
  • Once there has been clarification, it’s essential that all partners bring creative solutions at the table to address this obstacle and move forward.
  • Again, these are relationships, so I also agree with the importance of meeting face-to-face once and a while. This is essential if there’s a difficult conversation to have, but preferably even before any problems arise. This way, when a few road bumps occur, the established relationship will help smooth out the process.

In my experience, it’s when we have these sometimes-difficult conversations, or when a partnership is failing, that we get really creative and something unexpected and amazing comes out as a result.

Andrea (  I would echo what has already been said here. Stepping back, re-visiting what the aims and objectives are, and finding common ground can help get partners back on track. I too feel like the face-to-face meeting was key in pushing things forward. There’s only so much that can be done via teleconference. Technology is great, but it still doesn’t beat live interaction, especially when putting together a project that has multiple moving parts. 


  1. What partnership are you most proud of and why?

Sabrina (RNAO): I don’t think I can pinpoint one partnership example but feel that every partnership has taught me a new lesson to reflect on and strengthen my skills in group facilitation and team work. 

Some key lessons that have been invaluable to me include:

  • understand your common purpose and your vision of the partnership outcomes
  • understand who your partners are and their anticipations of what will come out of partnership
  • acknowledgment of the contributions of all partners
  • be as clear as possible – clarity assists in building trust
  • value the experience that your partners bring
  • remember to have fun!!!

Alexandra (SMH ASSIST): I have many, many, many examples of excellent partnerships, both from my previous and current roles. What’s interesting with partnerships is that they are all different and as Sabrina highlights, you learn something from each of them.

In general, the partnerships I’m most proud of are those where our common vision was clear, each partner was fully engaged and where we had a plan where we each knew what was expected of us. In these partnerships, we took time to celebrate our successes, we felt safe to express our concerns, but most of all we had fun in the process.

Andrea (  The partnerships we have with youth are always the most rewarding and meaningful. Young people who are fully engaged in a process get things done! 

For this project we had to address the needs and goals of all the different organizations, including the youth participants. I am most proud of the fact that the youth leads who participated seemed to be excited about the work they were about to do back in their communities after the centralized training. 


  1. If you could go back and give your inexperienced self some advice on partnerships, what would it be?

Sabrina Merali (RNAO):

  • It is invaluable to meet with the group at least once face to face. There’s something about in-person meetings that for me really helps in recognition.
  • Learn from your mistakes – reflect on them, understand what happened and try not to do the same mistake again.
  • Reflect on the needs of others stakeholders: What do they need to move forward? Does this align with their goals?
  • Celebrate success!!! It is so important.

Andrea ( Try to strike a balance between working from your program values and accommodating/understanding the values of the other partners.  Also, process is as important as product. Planning and being mindful of details is great, but there will always be the need to adapt and shift your plans. Learn from what went wrong and like Sabrina said, celebrate success! 

Alexandra (SMH ASSIST): Again, I agree with my colleagues:

  • Develop relationships with your partners (face to face meetings go a long way)
  • Co-create a clear plan from the get go. This helps with engagement and it helps partners to know what is expected of them.
  • Keep the vision alive! Sometimes we can lose our way in the process.
  • Have fun!


If you’re interested in learning more on this topic, see the Centre’s e-learning module: Building and strengthening partnerships.

Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health

695 Industrial Avenue, Ottawa Ontario, K1G 0Z1
Tel.: 613-737-2297   Fax: 613-738-4894


Please note: We do not provide mental health advice, counselling or treatment.
If you, or if someone you know is in crisis right now, please call the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.

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