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Marking a milestone: 50 years of Sunnybrook’s Youth Psychiatry Division

It’s been just over 50 years (51, to be exact) since Sunnybrook became the first hospital in Toronto to offer psychiatric care for youth, and its commitment to caring for young people with mental illness hasn’t wavered.

Dr. David Kreindler, head of the Division of Youth Psychiatry at Sunnybrook, says as teenagers try to cope with school pressures, developmental milestones and becoming “mature, self-sufficient” adults, it’s an important time to provide mental health care for young people who need it.

“It’s really worthwhile,” he says. “And it’s tremendously rewarding to see the kinds of differences you can make helping to set [young] people on a good path where they are functioning and thriving and doing well for themselves.”

Sunnybrook’s Youth Psychiatry Programs

Sunnybrook is home to one of the largest Youth Psychiatry Divisions in a general hospital in Canada, treating youth, ages 14-24 years old, with complex mood and anxiety disorders (patients need a referral from their family doctor or paediatrician). Dr. Kreindler says the Outpatient program sees approximately 1000 patients each year, in addition to several hundred inpatients. Sunnybrook’s Youth Inpatient Program is a short-term program which admits patients for a one- to two-week period for assessment and initial stabilization.

An additional program in the Youth Division is the day treatment program, Fresh Start. It’s run in partnership with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and provides multi-disciplinary psychiatric care to young people whose mental health prevents them from being able to attend school.

“It is a terrific multi-disciplinary team which does some really good work and can help fill an important niche in the spectrum of care for teens who are trying to attend school but are unable to because of mental health challenges,” says Dr. Kreindler.

Changing landscape of support for youth mental health care

In addition to the expertise and support of Sunnybrook health-care teams, there are an increasing number of treatment options and mental health resources available for young people today compared to 50 years ago.

One significant change brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has been virtual therapy appointments: patients can attend their sessions using a smartphone, tablet or computer since the unit is not currently offering in-person appointments.

For youth who are dealing with mental health and addictions concerns, the Family Navigation Project (FNP) at Sunnybrook, while not part of the Youth Psychiatry Division, provides expert navigation of the mental health and addictions system to help young people, ages 13 to 26, as well as their families, who are living in the Greater Toronto Area (Durham, Halton, Peel, Toronto, and York).

“FNP is a unique program. This kind of navigation support for families did not exist until FNP’s launch in 2013. Since then, our navigators have helped thousands of youth and families by matching them with the personalized resources that they need,” says Dr. Anthony Levitt, Medical Director of the Family Navigation Project.

Shifting the conversation around youth and mental health

Denise Hayes is a registered nurse and social worker who has been working in the Youth Psychiatry division for 47 years, giving her the opportunity to see how societal attitudes toward mental illness have shifted in the last several decades.

“There’s still stigma around mental illness, but I think it’s much more acceptable today for teenagers to have a mental illness such as an anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder or major depression,” she says. “The use of medication for treatment is also becoming more acceptable. It’s typically part of a treatment plan which also includes therapy and support for youth from a professional health-care team.”

“Over time education and awareness around mental health concerns has grown in the public eye,” says Dr. Kreindler. “For example, the COVID-19 pandemic has really highlighted the importance of mental health as many people have been dealing with unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety among many other symptoms during this time.”

“There has been a shift in the conversation around mental health. It has evolved over the years and, ultimately, more people are talking about it,” adds Dr. Ari Zaretsky, Sunnybrook’s Chief of Psychiatry. “It may be that discussions are happening around the dinner table with family members, in classrooms and schools; public figures, including athletes and celebrities are speaking out about mental health. It’s an important discussion that people are more open to having. Frank and honest discussion fuels increased compassion as well as acceptance and support of mental health concerns.”

While a lot has changed in 50 years in psychiatry at Sunnybrook, there are more exciting developments on the horizon.

Construction is currently underway on Sunnybrook’s Garry Hurvitz Brain Sciences Centre. When it’s completed, the new centre will be a world-class facility dedicated to brain and mental health. It will include inpatient care for patients through the Murphy Family Centre for Mental Health.

For Denise, she says what makes her work in youth mental health worthwhile is watching young people who come to Sunnybrook struggling find success.

“It is lovely to see them grow and develop and hopefully get better,” she says, adding many patients have gone on to pursue their interests, graduate from college or university, start families or pursue their careers.

“Now that’s the kind of thing that is your reward,” Denise says. “It’s wonderful.”

About the author

Lindsay Smith