Tracey Addison looks down at her feet. She is standing in a garden outside Sunnybrook Hospital, remembering.
“I felt as though we were in quicksand. We couldn’t move fast enough to help my son and all the while he was spiralling downwards,” Addison says. “My fear was that we would lose him.”
Addison’s son, Jason, was diagnosed with anxiety, depression and oppositional defiant disorder in 2012. At only 13, Jason wasn’t equipped to handle Toronto’s mental health system alone. Addison felt equally inadequate.
“We really struggled to find the right resources for him. It was frustrating because we felt that we had enough wherewithal to find the right kinds of supports for him,” Addison explains. “But we were constantly faced with, ‘I’m sorry, it’s not the right fit,’ or ‘we have a long wait list’.”
Securing proper help is difficult when it comes to mental illness, especially for youth. Jason felt limited by his anxiety; it was difficult for him to leave his house and taking public transportation terrified him usually leading to panic attacks. Getting helped seemed almost impossible.
Addressing an overburdened mental health system with family support
After years of failing to find adequate help, Addison came across Sunnybrook Hospital’s Family Navigation Project. Developed in 2013, the Family Navigation Project helps the families of youth 13-26 struggling with mental illness and addiction. Each family is put in touch with a “navigator” who helps guide them through Toronto’s mental health system and shows them the resources that best fit their situation.
“It was a godsend,” Addison says, describing the project. “I really believe that if we hadn’t found the Family Navigation Project and hadn’t been connected to the resources they found for us, we may not have had a positive outcome.”
The project began when a group of Toronto parents wanted change. They were confused and lost in Toronto’s mental health system. With the leadership of Sunnybrook Hospital’s brain science researcher, Anthony Levitt, they created a program to better treat cases of youth mental illness.
“That was a lot to go through from 19 to 20 years old. I ended up wanting to do the same thing as my dad the year following him taking his life. But I managed to get through it.” -Kevin Rempel
Levitt explored the parents’ concerns and realized their legitimacy. He chose to solve the issue by designing the project to allow families to go through the system together and receive counselling as a unit. As well the youth would receive individual therapy treatments.
“If you take a family approach, you get more activation. There’s more chance the youth is going to follow through and that they’ll have the support they need,” Levitt says.
Levitt and his team approached the organizers of the RBC Race For The Kids in 2012 with their plans for the Family Navigation Project. Receiving only positive feedback and support, the global fundraising race began financing the project and is still its sole funder. This past race raised approximately $2.5 million for the project, from its more than 9,000 participants.
“This year’s race day was magical,” Addison lights up. “The energy was fantastic. It was a great show of support for youth mental health and addiction.”
A growing race to support youth mental health
Paralympian and mental health advocate, Kevin Rempel, volunteered for this year’s race. His connection to the Family Navigation Project comes from his own family’s struggle and how he wants youth to have access to resources he never had.
Rempel’s father, Gerry, became a complete paraplegic after a devastating fall in 2002. Four years later, Rempel himself crashed his dirt bike and became a partial paraplegic. Gerry was unable to fight the depression and addiction that came as a result of his paraplegia and died by suicide one year into Rempel’s recovery.
“That was a lot to go through from 19 to 20 years old. I ended up wanting to do the same thing as my dad the year following him taking his life,” Kevin remembers. “But I managed to get through it.”
Rempel uses his story to help others suffering with mental illness. He has built his life around giving youth confidence to speak out about their struggle and courage to fight through it. He supports and advocates for the Family Navigation Project.
“The project is providing the direction needed for people when they get lost in the system,” Rempel says. “A lot of people need help and then they end up waiting for six months to see someone, just to find out it’s the wrong person.”
The Family Navigation Project aims to forgo that process and bring help directly to families that need it. It has helped more than 1,800 families since its inception four years ago and is one of multiple efforts in making Toronto’s mental health system more accessible.
Jason Addison has found success in the Family Navigation Project. He received therapy that has helped him overcome some of his anxiety and helped him to be successful in taking the TTC. He is also working towards his GED after his struggle had him falling behind in school.
“It’s been very hopeful, my son is doing well,” Addison smiles. “He’s really benefitted from some of the therapies and our family has benefitted from being involved.”
Tracey Addison is now a navigator with the Family Navigation Project. She has worked with the project for two years and loves helping other families manage situations similar to her own.