As many as 1.2 million young people in Canada struggle with a mental health issue, yet only 20 percent of those will get the specialized treatment they need. Why is that?
“I think sometimes isolation, sometimes stigma can be part of it, and I think it can be because it's a complicated system," explains Miriam Blond, a Family Navigator at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.
The Family Navigation Project is a free, non-profit program designed to help youth and their families get the help they need.
“When someone is experiencing a mental health issue, and they're feeling isolated, it's less likely that they're going to reach out," says Blond. “They may not even know how to reach out. So when we start saying that we understand and we want to support their whole family, then they're more willing to get help because there's less of a sense of blame, or that there's something wrong."
One mother called the program because her son was away at university and was experiencing intense anxiety. He had started to self-medicate, which his mother thought was affecting his grades, mood and motivation. While the son had agreed to have a psychological evaluation, he was anxious about phoning to book the appointment, and for confidentiality reasons, the office wouldn't book his appointment through his mother. The Family Navigation Project was ultimately able to advocate for the student and his mother. With his consent, they booked him an appointment to get an evaluation within one week.
“Something as small as that can be the difference between a 20-year-old getting the psychiatric assessment he needs, or not getting it at all," says Blond.
Blond is passionate about family-centred care. She wrote her graduate thesis on how there are better outcomes when families are actively involved in care. She notes the importance of creating partnerships with clients and their families to ensure the longevity of outcomes.
Another client Blond helped was a 15-year-old who was struggling in his day-to-day life. He was argumentative, aggressive, frustrated and unable to communicate what was happening. He'd talked about wanting to hurt himself and his concerned parents phoned the Family Navigation Project in need of support. Blond explained their options, including calling 911 or going to an emergency room, which you should do in the case of an emergency, but also what an admission to a children's mental health inpatient unit would look like.
The 15-year-old was eventually admitted to an inpatient unit for a short stabilization. “Then we looked at what sort of support the parents needed," says Blond. “They've had to go through this process of putting their 15-year-old in an inpatient unit, which is a very scary thing."
Blond reached out to a therapist on behalf of the parents and siblings involved. She arranged and attended regular conference calls with doctors, a therapist, and the parents. “We discussed what the treatment would look like while he was in the unit, when he left, and how we could continue to support the parents."
Simple questions such as 'what do I say to my son or daughter?' or 'what do I say to the psychiatrist?' are areas where family support can help.
“There are shifts that happen when people get support," says Blond. “When families get the strategies they need, you start to see shifts happening in terms of youth engaging in treatment or even how that treatment is going. So I think the outcomes we've seen in terms of improving family relationships, in terms of preventing caregiver burnout, in terms of increasing the agency and autonomy of youth themselves, who are incredibly resilient - it's an incredible thing to be a part of."
Family Navigators provide help to youth - aged 13-26 - and their families who experience mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and even more complex situations where there are multiple factors at play.
The program is conducted exclusively via telephone and e-mail - a model convenient for families when potential barriers such as scheduling and transportation are minimized.
Sometimes more mainstream routes to mental health services, such as a family doctor, may not be as effective. “If those main points of access have not gotten you anywhere and you feel you don't know what's going on, and you need someone to help figure it out, that's a good reason to call," says Blond.
“Every other role I've had in my career, I've done parts of navigation. Social workers, nurses, and doctors do navigation as part of their jobs, where they're helping people get to what they need. Navigation in the way we see it is comprehensive," says Blond.
Navigators assemble a list of services and connect them to their clients. They'll then stay connected with their clients and their families throughout the whole process.
“We're here with you, and we're not going anywhere. And we're going to be here to make sure the service works, and if you need another service, if someone else in the family needs a service, we're going to be here for that, too," explains Blond.
“We are privately funded through donors and largely through the RBC Race for the Kids, which is why it's a very big event for us," says Blond. “We're helping families and youth and the money raised allows us to meet those needs, continue to not have a wait list, continue to be flexible, and continue seeing the outcomes we're seeing."
Last year, 716 runners from RBC Wealth Management and Insurance - including friends and families - raised $145, 800 for the Family Navigation Project. This year's Race will see a total of 6,421 runners at the start line.
Over the past five years, the Toronto run has raised C$9.7 million dollars by more than 37,000 participants.
“Our purpose at RBC is to help our communities prosper," says Patti Shugart, managing director and head, Corporate Banking & Global Credit at RBC Capital Markets - executive champion for the race. “And we know that the well-being of our youth plays a vital part in creating strong, vibrant communities. We're proud to continue our longstanding support of the Family Navigation Project and its role serving youth – and their families – facing mental health and addiction issues."