COVID-19 (coronavirus) Featured Mental health Youth mental health

Family Navigation Project finds more youth reaching out for support during pandemic

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Written by Jennifer Palisoc

When Sam Medland went away to university for the first time, it wasn’t what he expected.

“It seemed like people were loving school. Everyone. All my friends were loving it, and for me, it was a tough time,” says Sam. “I felt like an outsider, I was questioning myself, and when that happens you start thinking you don’t belong.”

Sam was 18 years old at the time and says that was the year he confronted the dark feelings he would typically brush aside.

“I was feeling really low. It got pretty bad, and at that time, I had no real coping mechanisms,” Sam explains. “I wouldn’t get out of bed, I would start drinking in the morning, I would call my friends and start sobbing because I didn’t know how to cope.”

He reached out to his dad who helped him find support.

“At the time I had no idea what to do. And for the longest time I wouldn’t even say that I was depressed, but I was,” says Sam.

Sam received professional help and over time, developed positive coping skills along the way.

“I try to cope with those feelings differently. And I recognize the external factors that I can change,” he says. “Talking about things helps. It’s cathartic.”

Sam is honest about his experiences, noting that over the years, he has experienced ups and downs in his journey, but he keeps moving forward.

Pandemic experience

Now 23 years old, Sam is living through the COVID-19 pandemic, which is having an impact on mental health worldwide.

“I think a lot of young people are having a hard time,” says Sam who has connected with Sunnybrook’s Family Navigation Project (FNP) for support during the pandemic.

FNP is a free email and phone service that helps youth ages 13 to 26 years old with mental health and/or addiction concerns find the resources and help they need by matching them with expert navigators who guide young people, as well as their families, through the mental health and addictions system.

FNP does not provide crisis services, diagnosis or treatment. FNP helps young people more easily find services best suited to them as well as services that are a good match for their families. FNP provides support across the Greater Toronto Area in Durham, Halton, Peel, Toronto, and York regions.

Typically, parents and caregivers contact FNP looking to support their child or youth, but over the course of the pandemic, FNP is also seeing a new trend as more young people are directly reaching out to the program for services than ever before.

“In 2020, we had nearly twice as many youth call FNP for help,” says Liisa Kuuter, program manager for FNP, which is also part of the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Program at Sunnybrook. “The pandemic has been especially difficult for young people who are experiencing a number of stressors during COVID. They may have missed milestones such as graduation or prom, or their first year of university has been spent online or in lockdown. This is a stage of life when young people are typically socializing, meeting new people, and being more independent, and the pandemic has made it difficult to experience this fully.”

Sam says he has struggled throughout the pandemic.

“It got bad enough that I reached out to my mom and said, ‘I’m feeling suicidal again. I’m not liking it,’” says Sam.

At one point he was dealing with a break-up, and then sprained his ankle, which, coupled with lockdown measures, led him to engage in self-destructive behaviours.

He says his first call with FNP navigator, Katie Wicik, was a huge help.

“It was the first time in awhile that I’d spoken to someone about how I was feeling, so I felt an immediate release,” Sam explains. “It made me realize, I need to see a professional again which was very helpful.”

“Navigators help youth and families find the best fit for support by first assessing their needs and then identifying options for treatment and support,” says Katie. “The goal is to create a navigation pathway and find resources that are tailored to the uniqueness of each youth and/or family’s needs and circumstances.”

Feeling supported

FNP helped Sam find an appropriate support and he says as he continues to work on his mental health, FNP has made a positive impact on his journey.

“This progress wouldn’t have happened without FNP,” says Sam.

“The essence of what being a navigator means is building and strengthening relationships with youth, families, and systems of care,” says Katie. “Above all, being a navigator means embodying hope. Holding hope for the possibility of a new way forward despite the various roadblocks that a youth or their family may be facing.”

Last summer, Sam was encouraged by the support he received at FNP, so he decided to give back and join the virtual edition of the RBC Race for the Kids, which raises funds to support FNP’s critical guidance for families and youth seeking mental health and addictions services.

Sam joined thousands of others who supported FNP by running their own “Race for the Kids” at home that year. He’s even considering running again in the 2021 edition of the RBC Race for the Kids.

“FNP really helps in removing barriers and steps,” explains Sam. “I feel as though it would have taken me longer to find support if I didn’t have FNP there.”

Learn more about the Family Navigation Project (FNP)

If you need help in an emergency, please call 911 or visit your local emergency department.

If you’re feeling like you’re in crisis or need somebody to talk to, please know that help is also available through community resources:

 » Mental health resources for coping during COVID-19 from Sunnybrook experts

About the author

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Jennifer Palisoc

Jennifer Palisoc is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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