The well-being of our local youth has been a hot topic lately, primarily regarding the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, as we hear about increasing instances of youth self-harm, substance use, and mental health concerns.1

We know that change needs to happen, and that a quick-fix approach will not work. To create truly impactful, sustainable change, we need to work together not to change youth, but rather to change the environment within which our youth are growing up.

This was the message brought to us by Dr. Pall Rikhardsson, CEO of Planet Youth, who joined us in April to talk about the Planet Youth model. This upstream approach to addressing youth well-being has seen positive impacts in communities across the globe.

The importance of upstream thinking

You may have heard of the term “upstream thinking,” or “upstream approach,” but are not entirely sure what it means. The best way to understand it is through a well-known parable:

You and a friend are walking by a river. Suddenly you notice there is a child being carried down the river, on the verge of drowning and crying for help. You dive in and manage to pull her to safety. Once you do, you and your friend realize there is another child calling for help in the water. Your friend jumps in and saves him. More children in need of help keep coming down the river but soon you see your friend walking away, up the river. You ask where they are going, and they reply: “To figure out how all these children are ending up in the river!”

This is a very literal example of upstream thinking, but one that helps many people understand the concept. Upstream thinking involves directing our efforts towards addressing a situation that could result in problems if not tended to. By getting to the source of the problem—stopping the children from falling in the water in the first place—we prevent them from needing to later be rescued from the river.

Planet Youth is a wonderful example of upstream thinking in action. The challenge of youth well-being is a complex and layered problem which cannot be solved by a simple solution. By ensuring that young people across our communities have the necessary supports in place, and creating an environment that nurtures them, we will see greater long-term resilience and well-being for our local youth.

Building a strong foundation

In 2019, Dr. Álfgeir Kristjánsson, associate professor in the School of Public Health at West Virginia University and senior scientist with Planet Youth, came to Calgary and introduced the core components of the Planet Youth approach to our community. One of our greatest learnings from this session was the importance of collaboration—working together with our full community, from schools to government and agencies to institutions, to successfully build a foundation for this work.

Over the past couple of years, we have been preparing this foundation. We have been building strong and intentional partnerships, establishing a community working group, determining our governance structure, engaging youth to understand the opportunities they see, and securing funding to begin this important work.

Early this year, we signed a service agreement with Planet Youth, and are working towards implementing a five-year pilot program specifically designed for our local community, applying resources, tools, and learnings from the international Planet Youth model.

Incorporating Indigenous parallel processes and perspectives throughout the development of Planet Youth will help ensure we are honouring Indigenous ways of knowing and being, while taking important steps towards reconciliation. It will help inform who we are serving through Planet Youth, how we are working, and what we are doing. As part of this work, we have undertaken an Indigenous youth needs assessment, to understand challenges specific to young Indigenous people, and have engaged Elders to plan and create oral practices.

Calgary will be the first city in Western Canada to implement Planet Youth, and the first in our country to integrate an Indigenous parallel.

“We are excited about the Planet Youth model, not only because it has been used successfully around the world, but more importantly, it has been successful in creating positive spaces for Indigenous peoples around the world.”
-Planet Youth Calgary Working Committee member Kirby Redwood, CEO of Miskanawah

Improving lives for generations to come

Through Planet Youth we are embarking on a journey. To be successful, it will require the efforts of everyone coming together. As a community, we have an opportunity to work together in new ways, promoting preventative supports that address complex issues facing local youth, while leveraging existing work that is already occurring in our community.

The results of successfully implementing the Planet Youth model in our community are huge, and will continue to have multi-generational impacts as these young people grow up, become parents themselves and raise their own children.

This is a great challenge that lays before us, but with the potential to offer great results that will improve the lives of local people for generations to come.

Working together through Planet Youth we can ensure that young people in our city are supported to live their best life.

“Planet Youth must create a space where everyone has a voice, no one is silent.”
-Local youth

1Government of Alberta, Children’s Services. Child and Youth Well-being Review Final Report. Children’s Services. December 16, 2021. ISBN 978-1-4601-5294-2. Retrieved from: