Tillsonburg's CJ Watters is a teenager who is always looking for ways to make a difference.
On Nov. 27, 2017 15-year-old Watters was recognized at a gala event in Toronto by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health as a CAMH Difference Maker, celebrating 150 Canadians making a difference in mental health. Nominations came from across the country, starting in April, and included caregivers, health professionals, researchers, and advocates - anyone making a difference in small or big ways, locally or internationally, in public or private lives.
Watters is an advocate - he has been public speaking since Grade 3 and is comfortable speaking in front of very large groups of people.
"I can speak in front of 10,000 people - the more the better," said Watters. "If there was 100,000 people, I'd have no problem doing it."
As early as Grade 8 he found himself talking to other students about mental health problems. At first, he had no idea what to tell them. That led to him researching the subject, finding out where to direct the teens.
He first spoke about mental health when he was in Grade 8, then started giving full video presentations using the slogan #AlwaysCareAndBeAware in the latter months of Grade 9, and he spoke at a Mental Health Summit.
"In Grade 8, that started out at the Legion," said Watters, who had been asked to speak about mental health by motivational speaker Candie Buck (Justin Bieber's aunt) and decided to use that speech in the annual Royal Canadian Legion speaking competition. "I thought, 'Hey, it's Legion time, I might as well."
With that speech Watters won the local competition, which he had participated in since Grade 3, but he was unavailable for the zone stage that year.
"Soon after that I had to do the first (speaking) event."
He spoke in Woodstock last spring, did presentations at area schools in the fall (including Langton and Port Dover), and continues to do talk about 'how to be a beacon of light', most recently last week in Stratford. He also spoke at Tillsonburg Town Council in December.
Coming from a teenager, his message has resonated with teens, who often approach him after his presentations.
"Whenever I've done events people have come up to me and started talking. I was at an event in Toronto, and all of a sudden my phone went off after I was done talking. Some people started messaging me off Instagram... I didn't even say my Instagram. They found it, and were texting me their stories and what happened to them.
"If I can't help them... it depends really (where he directs them). If it's a severe situation, whether it's Aunt Candie or somebody else - their parents are a big one."
The Top 150 nomination helped him gain recognition, but Watters is more interested in sharing the message.
"I tell people, but it's not a thing that goes widespread around my school. I wish it was more talked about - not like me, but I wish the subject was touched upon more."
There have been times when he noticed students in need of help, but not being professionally trained, and not knowing them directly, it's a tough subject to bring up one-on-one.
"They're going to say 'I don't want to talk about it.' Or 'Why are you asking me?'
And that's why his message is so important - he tells students how and where they can find help.
"You see it all the time. You think 'I want to talk to them but I don't know how...' Because if you see something like that, you don't want to just go up and ask them about it. That makes them uncomfortable and that's the last thing you want to do, right? It's something that's hard to ask somebody about. It's a tough topic to ask someone because you know if it's to that extent (visible) then it's a very serious thing.
"People don't look at it as a widespread problem. Whether it's bullying, stuff happening in families, especially when it's hidden. Then all of a sudden something bad happens."
In January, Watters met Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in London.
"My mom had some contacts and reached out, and they told Trudeau about me. He said, since he was coming to London he wanted to congratulate me and talk to me about mental health."
Some of the high profile Difference Makers included former NHLer Corey Hirsch, Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O'Regan, and the PM's mother, Margaret Trudeau.
"We had a conversation for quite a while actually," said Watters, who presented Trudeau with one of his homemade mental health fundraising photo pillows - We Care Canada. "It was before he left for the (Town Hall) meeting.
"There were a few things... we were talking about things such as the wait times that kids wanting to get help in mental health have (up to two years), and just being able to help people with mental health in general. His mom was also one of the Top 150 Difference Makers in Mental Health, so we had a conversation on that a bit with CAMH."
In Watters' profile on the CAMH 'Difference Makers' website (give.camh.ca), which was also used in the CAMH December newsletter, it says "CJ Watters discovered his advocacy voice as a child. Now a teenager, he continues to speak up, but now has a much wider audience. In Grade 3, Watters was a runner-up for a provincial speaking competition for a speech called 'Children Can Make a Difference.'
"Five years later, he’s still using his voice to spread a positive message. Now 15 years old, CJ started speaking up about mental health last year after several of his friends opened up about their experiences being bullied and using cutting in response.
"Since then he has become a dedicated speaker who has inspired public figures, youth and their adult allies to open up about mental health. He regularly speaks at schools and was featured at a Canadian Mental Health Association event in Southwestern Ontario, where he spoke about the harms of bullying.
"CJ is also deeply committed to reaching out to those who serve in Canada’s military, given the high rates of mental illness they experience. A skilled photographer, CJ began selling pillows with photos of lighthouses on them so others could give them to friends experiencing bullying. The proceeds were donated to the Canadian Mental Health Association. CJ has recently begun making pillows to help shed light on the high number of veterans living with PTSD. The world is lucky to have CJ – someone who is always looking for ways to make a difference."
In the near future, Watters plans to have a video posted on YouTube focusing on his presentation.
"We're going to be filming that within the next week more than likely," said Watters. "That's a work in progress."
Passionate about mental health, Watters said he will continue to spread the word, no matter where his future career options take him.
"Whatever I can do to help, I'm going to do to help."
In 2018, CAMH plans to build on the momentum created across Canada with the celebration of the 150 inspiring individuals to engage the country in a national dialogue on mental health, wrapping up at a May 23rd 'thinkers conference.