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Concordia grad takes leading role in changing the youth mental-health landscape

Rowena Pinto becomes CEO of at a vital moment for the well-being of young people
February 15, 2023
By Damon van der Linde, BA 08

A woman is standing outdoors, smiling. She has black hair and is wearing a white tuque and navy blue winter jacket. “I strongly believe in youth having a voice and making decisions,” says Rowena Pinto, president and CEO of, pictured at the organization's annual Brainfreeze fundraiser.

On a chilly December morning, Rowena Pinto, BA 94, MA 97, stood on the shore of Lake Ontario, nervous about taking her first polar dip at the annual Brainfreeze fundraiser hosted by, a charity supporting youth mental health across Canada. 

Pinto,’s president and CEO, mustered her courage and plunged into the frigid water alongside hundreds of others, who collectively raised nearly $170,000 through the event.  

“The energy and dedication of the other dippers made going in a really fun experience,” says Pinto, about her first major fundraising event since joining the organization in September 2022. 

“A little polar dip in December is nothing compared to the bravery it takes to speak about mental health.”

Eric Windeler and Sandra Hanington co-founded after losing their 18-year-old son, Jack, to suicide in 2010. Wanting to ensure other struggling young people got the help Jack couldn’t, they created a memorial fund at Kids Help Phone. Out of this fund grew The Jack Project, an initiative aimed at doing its part to improve youth mental health across Canada. That same year they hosted the first Jack Ride, Canada's largest cycling event for youth mental health.

“They mobilized through their grief and created this youth-driven, youth-centred organization that is changing the mental-health landscape,” says Pinto, who succeeds Windeler in the CEO role as he takes on a new position at the organization. is unique in Canada as the only charity focused on youth mental health that serves every province and territory. It has trained thousands of young leaders in high schools, universities and community settings using a peer-to-peer approach. It brings youth together through local chapters, inspirational talks and conferences of all shapes and sizes.

“I strongly believe in youth having a voice and making decisions,” says Pinto.

A solid academic foundation

Pinto began her career tackling challenging and sensitive issues through an Institute for Co-operative Education placement at the Correctional Service of Canada during her MA in Public Policy and Public Administration at Concordia.

“That placement — which ended up becoming a full-time job — had a huge impact on my career because every single social challenge is exacerbated within the prison walls.”

Pinto says Concordia helped launch her impactful career by providing a solid academic foundation while exposing her to lecturers with experience in government, politics and other public services. She says Reeta Chowdhari Tremblay, former chair of the Department of Political Science, was particularly influential in her career trajectory. 

“I don't think I would have been in the master’s program if it hadn’t been for her. She saw something in me and was so supportive,” Pinto says.

Hired by the Correctional Service after graduation, she focused on citizen engagement, working with families and communities affected by incarceration and the correctional system.

“There were a lot of issues around over-representation of certain groups, whether that be Indigenous or other people of colour, which remain issues today,” she says. 

“So many equity-deserving groups in our society don’t get any say in creating policies, and the impact is not always positive for them.”

Before joining, Pinto was chief program officer at UNICEF Canada, where, on both local and international levels, she addressed such crucial issues as child and youth well-being, vaccine equity and access to education.

She also spent much of her career in public-affairs roles at the Canadian Cancer Society, which included starting programs to engage young people on cancer prevention, detection and treatment.

“They were the voice missing in a lot of our public-policy advocacy at the time,” she says.

Changing the mental-health landscape 

Pinto leads at a vital moment for youth mental health in Canada. 

The pandemic brought school closures, virtual learning, isolation and fewer gatherings with family and friends, which disproportionately impacted the well-being of young people.

“I’m a mother of three and watched my children struggle during the pandemic. While none of them got sick — which we were very grateful for — the pandemic really did affect every aspect of their lives,” she says.

“The youth mental-health issue, which was an issue even before the pandemic, has now just been exacerbated.”

Suicide is still the leading health-related cause of death for youth in Canada. One in seven report having suicidal thoughts, and many more stay silent. Pinto says one positive development is that more young people are becoming open to speaking about mental health. So far, has reached more than 165,000 youth all over Canada through its support groups and events.

However, Pinto says not all communities in Canada are equally served when it comes to youth mental health — something she wants to change in her new role.

“I come from a community and a background where there’s still a lot of stigma around mental health,” she says. 

“In my teenage years, I struggled quite a bit, but there was no outlet. There was no organization like”


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