Injury Prevention

How Sunnybrook’s Youth Safety Lab is evolving to meet teens where they are

Christina Frimpong demonstrates how to stop a bleed on a silicon leg in front of students
Written by Idella Sturino

What do alcohol and cannabis-related trauma, brain and spinal cord injuries, and controlling life-threatening bleeding have in common?

They are all topics covered by Sunnybrook’s Youth Safety Lab, an innovative one-day program for high-school students that explores and enhances awareness of personal and community safety.

As home to Canada’s first and largest trauma centre, Sunnybrook is deeply committed not only to treating critically ill and injured patients, but also to building capacity to help people avoid traumatic injury in the first place.

The Youth Safety Lab is one of several programs and resources offered by the Centre for Injury Prevention, which is part of our Tory Trauma Program. Each year, the program welcomes more than 1,000 high-school students from dozens of schools across Toronto to learn strategies and techniques to reduce serious and fatal injuries.

Students stand in a hallway at Sunnybrook hospital

Injury Prevention Educator Shaelyn Fitzpatrick leads students on a tour as part of the Youth Safety Lab

Students attending the program spend the morning exploring ways to reduce the likelihood and severity of injury through the P.A.R.T.Y. (Prevent Alcohol & Risk-Related Trauma in Youth) Program. Following a pizza lunch, they then spend the afternoon becoming certified in STOP THE BLEED®​, a course designed to teach competence and confidence in applying life-saving skills to critical bleeding incidents.

The program combines hands-on exercises and workshops with presentations given by a range of speakers, including physiotherapists, occupational and respiratory therapists, nurses, doctors, paramedics, and people with lived experience.

Shaelyn Fitzpatrick, Injury Prevention Educator, says the program is constantly evolving to meet teens where they are in order to provide a truly engaging learning experience. As one example, the program now includes an activity focused on mental health and ways to cope with stress. Students are divided into ‘stressor’ and ‘coping strategy’ teams to ‘go to battle’.

“The point of the exercise is to acknowledge that we will always experience stressors in our lives,” Fitzpatrick says, “but there are ways to cope and resources available in schools and elsewhere to help.”

Students take part in a demonstration about life after traumatic injury

Students take part in a demonstration about life after traumatic injury

New content on cannabis has also been incorporated into the program. Although cannabis is illegal for anyone under the age of 19 in Ontario, Fitzpatrick says it’s important for young people to understand what chemicals are contained in cannabis, and the effects they can have.

“We take a harm-reduction approach,” Fitzpatrick explains. “This means we say, if you are choosing to use cannabis or alcohol, here is what you need to know to make safe and informed decisions.”

Students are taught about THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), a chemical in cannabis that causes mental and physical effects known as a “high”, and CBD (cannabidiol), a different chemical in cannabis which does not produce a high. They are also shown how to interpret the information printed on cannabis product labels, which are regulated in Canada.

“We want them to know what the product is so that they can mitigate a serious outcome,” Fitzpatrick explains.

This reflects another important evolution to the program in recent years, which has been its tone.

“Our approach has shifted away from educating youth with graphic, vivid content,” says Fitzpatrick. “Our current focus is on ensuring our content is evidence-based, providing youth with the skills and resources they need to manage risk and make safe, informed decisions through both a harm-reduction and trauma-informed approach.”

The program has also evolved to offer more practical takeaways for students, including a new injury prevention student leadership guide. The guide aims to encourage participants to continue spreading education and awareness about safety and injury prevention in their school community.

Students and hospital staff inside a emergency room at Sunnybrook hospital

Students visit the Trauma Bay in the Emergency Department

Sean Chen, an 18-year-old student, says attending the Youth Safety Lab and reading the student leadership guide gave him a different perspective on injury prevention and ways to be a changemaker in his community.

“It was very eye-opening,” Chen says.

After noticing over the years that some of his peers knew how to cycle but were hesitant to do so on busy urban streets, Chen wanted to find a way to boost their safety skills and confidence. He credits the student leadership guide with providing a roadmap about how to turn that grain of an idea into action.

“I wanted to help make cycling safer and more comfortable for people because at the end of the day this is their community, and biking is an excellent way to get around,” he explains.

Chen organized a two-day event at his high school called “Cycle Your City”, which focused on bike maintenance skills, safe cycling practices such as hand signals and how to navigate streetcar tracks, and building road confidence. The event culminated in a group bike ride and picnic on the Toronto Island accompanied by community police officers.

 “I hope this sets a precedent and provides a framework for other students who might want to run injury-prevention initiatives like this again in the future,” Chen says.

Student Sean Chen displays certificate recognizing his leadership in the field of injury prevention

Student Sean Chen displays certificate recognizing his leadership in the field of injury prevention

 Fitzpatrick agrees, saying the initiative is just the sort of thing the guide aims to spark.

“The event Sean organized demonstrates how our work at Sunnybrook extends beyond the hospital, helping to shape and empower future leaders in improving community safety,” she says.

She says it’s also an example of why working with teens to learn injury prevention skills is such a rewarding experience.

“Teens are heavily influenced by their peers and it can be hard to get through to them,” Fitzpatrick says. “But when they attend the program and then continue to share the information they’ve learned afterwards in their school communities, it’s very rewarding to see we are having an impact.”

About the author

Idella Sturino

Idella Sturino is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook. She has a passion for storytelling and public engagement and brings two decades' worth of expertise as a former journalist to the role.