Stella Green was a normal, happy Toronto teen who loved music, sports and hanging out with her friends. Her mom Donna describes her as "vivacious, creative, social and confident. Basically an average kid, with what we thought were typical teen issues, but nothing that would indicate the wheels were coming off."
At 17, Stella's mental health crashed. First diagnosed as having a learning disorder, her parents and teachers soon knew it was more serious. Overcome by anxiety, Stella fell behind in her schoolwork, pulling all-nighters to try to catch up. Soon, the stress paralyzed her, often making it impossible for her to shower, or even get out of bed.
"Then we got a call from the school, saying they'd found Stella in a heap of tears in the hallway," says Donna. "We found out she'd been cutting [herself] and was abusing drugs and alcohol. We were turned upside down."
What followed was three frustrating years in and out of residential mental health centres in Boston, Chicago and Vermont – at a cost of hundreds of thousands – because Stella could not get support from the overburdened programs and limited facilities here. "We know we are the lucky ones because we could afford to support our daughter, both emotionally and financially," says Donna. "But what about the teens and families who don't have the funds? The ones who don't speak English? What about the ones who never get correct assessments, and are left flailing as they try to figure out where to turn or go?"
So Donna decided to act, and recently launched an aggressive, $12-million fundraising drive to spearhead a community-based, drop-in centre in Toronto – called Stella's Place Assessment and Treatment Centre – aimed at 16- to 30-year-olds with complex mental health issues like Stella, who was diagnosed with anxiety disorder, severe depression, substance abuse issues, as well as bipolar disorder.
Marshall Korenblum, chief psychiatrist of the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre for Children and Families and a Sunnybrook psychiatrist who treated Stella, says Stella's Place is "cutting-edge" because of its mandate to target "transitional-aged youth."
"Most children's mental health services in Ontario are provincially funded and mandated to provide services to kids with mental health problems up to the age of 18," says Korenblum." So then what happens whey they turn 18?"
According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, there are more than 100,000 Toronto residents between the ages of 16 and 30 with mental health issues.
Until Stella imploded, Donna says she "knew nothing of the clinical complexity of mood disorders. I knew my child was severely depressed and desperately needed help. I didn't know how difficult it would be to get that help. And I did not expect to meet so many parents who shared our dismay. Despite many wonderful mental health resources in Ontario, the system as a whole was failing our young adults."
Modelled after Australia's Headspace, a progressive youth drop-in facility with 55 centres, Stella's Place is envisioned as Canada's first, non-residential centre for 16- to 30-year-olds with mood disorders that will align itself with community partners to help them back into society and get some – or all – of their old lives back.
"I would go to the States, spend months in these centres, and think I would be functioning pretty well," says Stella, now 23. "Then I'd come home – all my friends were in the States – and I'd fall apart all over again," adds the young woman who is back to school part-time and working at the Jewish Community Centre.
It's still early days of fundraising, but Donna says she now is actively campaigning various government agencies to see if they'll dig into their pockets and buy in. So far, they haven't anted up, but Donna believes she can sway them. She hopes Stella's Place will be functioning in 2015 with a three-year trial program that will eventually employ 30 full-time therapists and help 500 patients. A network of clinical and holistic services, including nutrition, fitness, art and music therapy programs is planned.
For Stella, anxiety is something she will grapple with the rest of her life. But she's hopeful private/public initiatives like this "will help people like me get a proper diagnosis faster, which means you can heal faster, and remember what life used to be like."