What does a 35-year-old start-up look like? | Waterloo News

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Why is Kids Help Phone leading and sharing insights on innovation, data and even artificial intelligence?  Isn’t Kids Help Phone (KHP) a not-for-profit charity, a youth mental health social service charity?  These are questions I get all the time — until I tell the story of KHP and the work we have been doing for 35 years. 

We are in fact a 35-year-old start-up – the first adopters of virtual care in the country back in 1989, and disrupting ever since.  KHP remains the only 24/7 multilingual national e-mental health solution for young people in Canada – coast to coast to coast, for any issue, free and without judgement for “kids” aged five through to 29. 

There was a mental health crisis in Canada before the pandemic – suicide was the second leading cause of death in Canada and our country had the third highest suicide rate in the industrialized world.

Katherine Hay

Katherine Hay (BA ’98) President & CEO, Kids Help Phone; 2021 Arts Alumni Achievement Award recipient.

 

That remains the same today. Then add on the very real impact the pandemic has had on the mental health and wellbeing of young people — all people for that matter. 

Deeply focused on being there for young people

It is very clear to us, steady state is just not an option at KHP or for youth and mental health.  And that is where KHP leads – as an innovation, data-driven technology charity that has a laser sharp focus on youth and mental health.  In 2018, KHP launched the Youth Mental Health Innovation Imperative, where artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) was introduced in our new texting platform to support triaging and our human to human crisis response. That moment unlocked everything for KHP – a new and robust approach to our virtual frontlines.

From there, while we built new technologies and access points for youth in every corner of Canada, an endemic was building into the largest global crisis of our lifetimes.  When an entire globe shut down, when Canada shut down because of a pandemic, Kids Help Phone did not shut down – not for one second.  In fact, we scaled and we scaled and we scaled again. What we didn’t know back in 2018 was that we were in fact building for Covid.  KHP did not go dark.  And that is because KHP is an innovation data-driven tech charity deeply focused on being there for young people however, whenever and wherever they need us. 

Continuing to lean into the tech sector

In 2019, KHP interacted with young people 1.9 million times coast to coast to coast in both official languages, a 30 per cent increase from the year before.  As the end of February 2024, four years after the pandemic began, KHP has interacted with young people more than 18.8 million times, in multiple languages through various platforms and access points.  The power of innovation, data and technology at KHP saves lives every single day. 

Remembering that steady state is not an option, KHP continued to lean into the tech sector. In 2023, KHP and the Vector Institute formed a powerful partnership to unlock the horsepower of the KHP data, the largest youth mental health data-set in the country to improve and amplify e-mental health solutions for KHP as well as for the broader sector. The FAIIR prototype, for instance, is an innovative natural language processing AI tool for Frontline Issue Identification and Recommendation.  KHP also partnered with MaRS and the Elevate Festival to launch an Innovation Challenge to work alongside the KHP clinical and data teams to imagine and build the next Horizon for youth and mental health in Canada – a personalized, gamified interactive eco-solution/sphere. 

Which leaves me with a question of my own when I think of building solutions to support the youth of Canada in their journey of mental health and wellness. 

Can you imagine a Canada without Kids Help Phone?  I cannot. 

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