A popular private chat service at a downtown youth centre is offering more hours and more counsellors for young people in need of mental health support.

Stella Green-Sanderson recalls being in Grade 10 and starting to experience debilitating anxiety. She had to drop out of high school halfway through Grade 12. And stigma was part of the reason why she hesitated to visit counsellors in person.

"When I was a teenager I probably wouldn't have been gung ho to go out to an actual place and say 'Hey, I'm having some problems'."

That's why BeanBagChat, a secure mobile chat app, offered by Stella's Place, is proving to be so popular. The Toronto centre for people ages 16 to 29 has brought in more peer counsellors to staff the service. And it has expanded BeanBagChat's hours to operate from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday through Friday.

"We are seeing an increase in users just after the first week, which is great," says Executive Director Jenny Carver of Stella's Place.

Unique features

BeanBagChat is just one of the youth-oriented features of Stella's Place, which was started a decade ago by Donna Green, Stella's mom.

"You would go to one part of the city with a six-month wait for group therapy and then (in) another three months you might finally get an appointment with a psychiatrist," recalls Green.

Back then, the disparate nature of mental health services forced the Greens to turn to the United States for Stella's treatment. But Stella says a range of therapies are needed for most people to manage their mental health. For her sports, music, medications and therapy were all combined.

So when Donna Green established Stella's Place on Camden Street, by Richmond Street and Spadina Avenue, she included features such as a street-level cafe, an art studio, yoga and running programs, as well as a psychiatrist and group and one-on-one therapy.

"It just feels like a cool space" says Stella. "It's not a hospital; it doesn't feel like a treatment centre."

No referral is needed and services at Stella's Place are free.