Youth mental health

How parents helped form the Family Navigation Project

Mother and son pose for the camera

Officially launching in June 2014, this program will provide expert navigation of the mental health and addictions service system for youth and their families.

[dropcap]J[/dropcap]ason Myers is enthusiastic, energetic and ambitious – like any twentysomething with career and personal goals – but the Toronto university student also shares something deeply personal with many other young people.

For several years, Jason struggled with mental health, as well as substance use, issues. It was only after an exhaustive search that his parents finally found the right support and programs that would kick-start their son’s recovery.

After spending a total of nearly a year at two Utah treatment centres, Jason, now 21, is blossoming as a third-year student in the psychology program at Toronto’s Ryerson University, where he’s also passionately involved in an entrepreneurship program. As well, his mother, Rhonda Myers, turned her son’s negative experiences into a positive: She’s among the parents who were instrumental in the formation of the Family Navigation Project (FNP) – a Sunnybrook initiative that connects young people aged 13 to 26 struggling with mental health and/or substance abuse problems, as well as their families, with appropriate and timely help.

While the FNP has been in development for some time, it will officially launch in June 2014, boosted by $1.2-million raised through the inaugural RBC Run for the Kids™. As well as a parents’ council of dedicated volunteers like Rhonda, there are staff health system “navigators,” other volunteers and a medical director, Sunnybrook’s Dr. Anthony Levitt.

In many ways, Jason wishes the FNP was around when he began struggling in middle school.

“Before I went away [to the American treatment centres], I went to a number of different therapists, tried a number of different programs – nothing really worked for me,” says Jason. “But it’s very different when you find the right groups and therapists.”

Dr. Levitt, Sunnybrook’s director of research in psychiatry, says an estimated two million youth in Canada have mental health and/or addiction problems, and only one in five gets specialized treatment.

[pullquote align=”right”]”Mental illness and addictions know no social barriers… The truth is, it can affect anybody, and it does.”[/pullquote] “Mental illness and addictions know no social barriers – they occur across socioeconomic class, and employment and housing status,” says Dr. Levitt, also a professor in the University of Toronto’s psychiatry department. “The truth is, it can affect anybody, and it does.

“What we have discovered is even those 20 per cent of kids who get the specialized treatment, a lot don’t complete it – then they have to go back and get treatment again, and even then that doesn’t necessarily work. Families are going through the system and can’t find the right door.”

Jason and his family had the door slammed shut on them many times while seeking help.

“I started struggling with anxiety and depression, and it got progressively worse to the point that, in Grade 11, I was unable to sleep, really had no motivation to get out of bed and go to school or do anything,” recalls Jason, the youngest of three children. “My mindset was, ‘Why bother going to school when I was going to be dead anyway,’ which was pretty grim, but that was my overriding thought.”

That dark period finally saw some light, however, in the summer of Grade 11 after he entered a 10-week program called Second Nature: Wilderness Therapy for Troubled Teens and Families located in a mountainous area of Utah. Jason says, in his first few days in the program, he wrote his life story while in isolation – an important eye-opener.

“Reading my life story was what really made it click that, ‘Wow, I’m wrong – nowhere did I mention friends and family – it was more about myself, and drugs and being cool. Before that, I was convinced I didn’t need help because no one understands me and it wasn’t my fault – it was everyone else’s.” Today, the sports-loving student is working part-time at a venture capital firm with the goal of a career in marketing and business development and shares a downtown apartment with two buddies.

Searching for answers

Rhonda says the FNP “was born out of trauma, but it was a brilliant development.” When she and her husband first started trying to navigate the mental health system, “nobody we called had any answers… . We were lost, absolutely lost, terrified.”

While attending a lecture by another Sunnybrook psychiatrist, Rhonda met Dr. Levitt and they discussed the harrowing road that parents like her often have to take to get help. From there, Dr. Levitt met with Rhonda and other parents to conceive the FNP “around the kitchen table.”

Jeanne Foot, chair of the FNP parents’ council, who has two children who overcame problems, says meeting other parents with troubled kids showed her she wasn’t alone.

Spotting the red flags

Knowing the signs of a young person facing a mental health problem is important in getting early help. Here are some symptoms to watch for:[list type=”arrow”] [li]Abuse of drugs and/or alcohol[/li] [li]Problems at school like skipping classes, stealing, damaging property, dropping grades[/li] [li]Inability to deal with daily problems and activities[/li] [li]Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits[/li] [li]Experiencing a lot of physical problems[/li] [li]Self-esteem and/or body image issues[/li] [li]Angry outbursts[/li] [li]Unhappy much of the time, thinking of self-harm or suicide.[/li][/list]Source: Canadian Mental Health Association

“For all of us [on the council], we had exhausted every situation, but for these families who are now being helped by the FNP, they will get a lifeline right away,” says Foot.

That lifeline can come in various forms, say Kailey Patterson and Naomi Algate, who are the FNP’s first staff navigators. Working in a large office in Sunnybrook’s psychiatry department building, both have extensive education and experience in the field of youth mental health and addiction and in supporting parents and families of these youth.

In just the first couple of months of getting underway in November, the FNP had helped some 60 families, mostly from the Toronto area, but also from other parts of Ontario and as far away as British Columbia and Newfoundland.

“I’ve seen a lot of families dealing with anxiety and depression, and we’ve seen some with kids with bipolar or borderline personality disorder, accompanied by substance use,” says Patterson. “Many of the parents have taken on the full-time job of calling around to see if a certain program fits with their child’s needs and doing that runaround game. So we make the calls and do that for them sometimes.”

Algate says one of the biggest concerns of parents is the long wait lists for publicly funded help, the reason the FNP also serves as an advocacy group. But the navigators guide families through their options.

Dr. Levitt adds: “The majority of resources we find are publicly funded, while a significant minority are privately funded because those resources simply don’t exist in the public system or the waits are terribly long … . But even for those resources that are privately funded, there may be circumstances where government agencies may help cover them.”

Jason found salvation in private treatment – at Second Nature, as well as at Gateway Academy, a Salt Lake City residential treatment centre for adolescent boys, where he spent about nine months from 2008-09. But Jason stresses: “There are good programs in Canada that can help kids quite a bit – not every kid needs to go to Utah – but what is needed is a resource where you can find the connections you need.”

Banking on partnership

Since 2008, the RBC Children’s Mental Health Project has provided more than $20-million to support over 350 organizations dedicated to providing early intervention, increasing public awareness and reducing stigma of mental illness. Recognizing the need for a program to help youth more readily access mental health care, in 2013, the RBC partnered with Sunnybrook to establish the RBC Run for the Kids™ as a method to raise funds and awareness for the Family Navigation Project. Held in the Sunnybrook neighbourhood, the event attracted about 4,400 participants – nearly doubling expectations, says Jessica Diniz, Sunnybrook Foundation’s director of marketing and communications, who also oversees the RBC run event. “RBC was looking for a way to further their commitment to youth mental health and to engage employees in a cause that touches all families.”

Diniz says the second RBC Run for the Kids™ has been set for September 20, 2014, and will start at North York’s Mel Lastman Square, given that it’s expected to attract upward of 5,000 participants to the 5-kilometre, 15-kilometre and 25-kilometre events.

“We are very proud of our partnership with RBC. They are a true partner in every sense of the word, working hand in hand with us on this project.” says Diniz. “The money [from the inaugural run] is being put to use immediately and already it’s had an impact.”

To contact the FNP: Email: or call 416-480-4444

About the author

Marlene Habib