Team UNBREAKABLE: Helping Teens Take Life’s Hills and Valleys in Stride

By Colin Vincent

It ain’t easy being a teen. The journey from childhood to adulthood can be confusing, stressful and at times downright painful. Like Freddie Mercury and David Bowie sing in the classic hit by Queen, our youth are under tremendous pressure to succeed, and yet the terror of coming to know what this world is about frequently overwhelms their ability to cope with seismic physical and emotional shifts and to make sense of increasingly complex lives – a troubling reality that is reflected in recent statistics on youth and mental illness.

The Canadian Mental Health Association pegs the total number of 12-19 year olds at risk of developing depression at a sobering 3.2 million, while suicide continues to be a leading cause of death among Canadians aged 15-24 (second only to accidents).

Fortunately, researchers and therapists have discovered a new anti-depressant/anti-stress treatment to improve the health and wellbeing of youth who may be struggling with mental illness. It’s called ‘running’ and it can work wonders either as a standalone treatment or in tandem with other more formal interventions (e.g., psychotherapy and/or medication). The idea here is that running is not only a healthy activity, but also seems to be therapeutic – no surprise to the many runners out there who have found stress levels lowered after a good long run.

The Team Unbreakable program for youth exemplifies how physical activity, along with relevant education and quality support, can help teens create positive changes in their lives one run at a time. Modeled after a successful ‘Teen Run Group Therapy Program’ developed by social worker and avid runner Dan McGann at the Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga, Ontario, Team Unbreakable is a 12-week program that helps young people move from a non-running baseline (no prior running experience required) to participation in a 5K race by the end of the program. Along the way, group members connect with peers, learn about physical and mental health from inspirational guest speakers, and develop skills to tackle the steep hills, flat stretches and low points that are part of any run – and any life.

It’s about building self-confidence and resilience as well as getting a decent cardio workout. And the early results speak for themselves. Charlotte von Prondzinski, Child and Youth Counsellor with the Georgian Bay Family Health Team in Collingwood, Ontario, helped launch a Team Unbreakable initiative early in 2013 for youth who were referred for mental health services by a family physician. Participants tracked their moods over the 12-week period (including before and after each run) using a standard self-report measure. By the end of the program, von Prondzinski reports that participants’ moods had improved by a mind-blowing 40% on average. To get a sense of what this impressive stat means in real terms (i.e., lived experience), just watch their incredibly awesome Team Unbreakable video.

Running group therapy programs like TU demonstrate the astounding resilience of our teens and the transformative power of physical activities like running. To paraphrase one Team Unbreakable participant, running can give us a healthy way to express ourselves, to engage with the world and to discover potential we never knew we had.

Many of us who discovered running later in our lives, and who have taken it up as a largely recreational pursuit, will identify with these feelings too. Running does help us discover potential, engage with our communities, and feel great about ourselves. It’s why we keep getting out there every week.

How inspiring then that these awesome benefits of running are now being used to help teens struggling through some extremely tough stretches? Running has the power to transform mind and body. It’s something worth reflecting on when facing that next long hill.

Colin Vincent, MSW, RSW, is a Social Worker with Lanark County Mental Health and a fitness enthusiast who recently discovered the joys of running. He ran his first 5K at the Brett Pearson Run for Your Life event in Carleton Place this past September.


2. Statistics Canada