Toronto hospital launching project for youth mental health services

Watch above: How Sunnybrook is making it easier to find treatment for mental health and addictions. Crystal Goomansingh reports. 

TORONTO – She searched the continent for help for her daughter suffering from anorexia nervosa and bulimia, but mom Jacqui wasn’t having any luck.

There were “incredible” wait times of up to 10 months just for initial meetings with specialists, long distances to travel too, and fees that would force Jacqui’s family to remortgage their home.

When Jacqui’s colleague referred her to Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre’s Family Navigation Project, the mom wasn’t sure what to expect. It turned out that the service set up Jacqui and her daughter, Zoe, with the support and services they needed.

“It wasn’t just, ‘okay, what’s your name, what are you dealing with and I’ll call you back’…she listened to the whole story and I felt like I had a friend that understood what was going on. So that was very helpful, then I could focus on Zoe, I could focus on my faith and keep calm and do what was needed in the home,” Jacqui told Global News.

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READ MORE: Stigma keeps youth suffering from mental health issues in the dark

On Wednesday, Sunnybrook launched its Family Navigation Project – what it calls the first of its kind, call-in and email program that would partner “navigators,” who are clinically trained health professionals with families and their kids grappling with mental health and addictions struggles.

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According to Dr. Anthony Levitt, medical director and co-founder of the project, Canadian families deal with mental health issues frequently. They just don’t know what to do or where to go to get help. In other cases, families seek out help, but they’re redirected or caught in wait lists and bureaucratic red tape.

“One father said to us that he lined up – his son had an issue – he lined up for six months, he got to the front of the line and got told ‘you’re in the wrong line,’” Levitt explained.

“So people come up against brick walls and they need help navigating to the right place at the right time,” he said.

READ MORE: Stress, anxiety plaguing Canadian youth

More than one million Canadian kids have a mental health issue that requires urgent help, but only 20 per cent of them get the assistance they need, Levitt said. Most of the major mental illnesses include depression, schizophrenia, anxiety and eating disorders.

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The issues can seep into their school, employment, social life and physical health, Levitt warned.

The new Sunnybrook program would help Greater Toronto Area families with kids between the ages of 13 and 26. In the long run, ideally the program would expand to the rest of the province but the funding has extended across the GTA so far.

Right now, the average age of the person the program helps is about 18 or 19 years old. Levitt calls it a “transitional” age where child services are ending and adult services haven’t kicked in yet.

To be clear, the program isn’t a crisis response line, it doesn’t offer services, doesn’t conduct counselling or psychotherapy. It’s strictly meant to bridge the gap between patients in need and the right professionals who can help.

“We direct people to the appropriate services…what we do is stay in touch, we don’t just give a list or a name, we actually make contact with that agency or that person to explain more about the person, that they’re the right person, that they can take them on,” Levitt explained.

READ MORE: Many boys not reaching out for mental health help

The program administrators then follow up to ask if the services are helping. If not, they find new experts to connect with.

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In Jacqui’s case, a single navigator – named Naomi – helped her daughter through their journey so she isn’t bounced around between navigators. If Naomi doesn’t hear from the daughter or mom, she calls to check in, she genuinely wants to know how Zoe is doing, Jacqui said.

“She almost feels like a friend. I have not met her personally yet, but she feels like a friend,” she said.

GTA families interested in seeking out the program can call 1-800-380-9FNP or email The program navigators say they’ll respond within one business day.

Read more about the project here.

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