Sunnybrook’s Family Navigation Project is launching with a view to helping troubled young people get the help they need
Jason 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 14 to 24 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.
“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.”