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Dr. Aliza Israel, left, and Marsha Gallinger work with women offering them parenting support and help at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Getting parenting support is tough at the best of times, but especially challenging for women struggling with mental-health issues. Now a first-of-its-kind centre that dispenses with the need for formal referrals to a child psychiatrist, long wait times and fees is helping women be better moms.

Launched in January by Women's College Hospital, but only officially announced this month, the Toronto centre – a pilot project – offers advice on helping kids overcome everything from sleep and eating disorders to sibling rivalry.

"We know that many women with a mental-health issue won't access the help they need because they can't afford it, don't know where to go, or are worried about being seen as a bad parent," says social worker Marsha Gallinger, who runs the centre free-of-charge to all its mental-health patients. "We want to eliminate some of the barriers women are faced with when searching for help, including the need for a formal referral to a child psychiatrist, long wait times and fees."

Jenny, who battled postpartum depression and has ongoing anxiety issues, is one of 35 women being treated at Women's College to benefit from the Parenting Support Centre. (Fearing stigma, she wishes to remain anonymous.) With three children under the age of six, including an 11-week-old, she's a very busy, hands-on mother.

Before the recent birth of her third child, Jenny – already juggling a rebellious three-year-old – feared a relapse.

"Because I had experienced postpartum depression before, I was anticipating it was going to happen again," she says. "I was starting to get overwhelmed at the thought of the new baby. Even with an extremely supportive husband, I wasn't sure I'd be able to cope."

Like most women who use the centre's services, Jenny went for four one-on-one sessions with Gallinger to talk confidentially about the most pressing child-rearing challenges she needed to address.

In Jenny's case, it was her eldest's difficulty getting to sleep: Gallinger recommended she tell her daughter she would check on her every 10 minutes until she finally fell asleep, thereby easing her sleep-related anxiety by letting her daughter know her mother was a constant, reassuring presence.

"It worked," says Jenny, who adds that strategies like these are simple, but indispensable when you're run ragged and constantly trying to catch up. "Now if my older one says, 'Mommy, I wish I was the baby,' I go and cuddle her. The centre gave me the assurance that I could hear what my kids were asking for."

Women's College child psychiatrist Dr. Aliza Israel, who launched the pilot program, says the need for parenting support for women with mental illness is critical because most don't know where to reach out, and hesitate to ask for help for fear they will be regarded as "bad mothers."

"Parenting can be tremendously difficult under the easiest of circumstances, but for our patients who struggle with anxiety, depression or other mental-health illnesses, it can be overwhelming," says Israel, who is also the centre's director. "Research shows a mother's mental illness can have a significant effect on a child, leading to behavioural issues and even impact a child's own mental health."

The one-on-one sessions are modelled on the Positive Parenting Program, or Triple P, an approach developed more than 25 years ago by Dr. Matt Sanders, a psychologist in Australia known for his research on prevention and treatment of behaviour problems in children. The goal is to reduce stress in the family before it reaches the stage where emergency aid is needed.

"By giving these women the tools to be the mothers they want to be, in a setting that is supportive, easy to access and free, we can help improve their well-being and that of their children," Israel explains.

The program "responds to the old adage that 'if mom ain't happy, ain't nobody happy,'" says Israel. "Many of these moms don't have the emotional energy or reserves to be the parents they'd like to be."

The centre will remain open until fall, when government funding runs out. Israel sees the centre as a potential model for mental-health services elsewhere.

Jenny, who hasn't had to return to the centre since the birth of her youngest, hopes funding and access can be extended into schools, hospitals and doctors' offices across the country to help women like her.

"When you have anxiety, you're so worried to show it to anyone because you're afraid they're going to think you're a bad mother," she says. "The centre gave me the tools to be a better parent, a more present one. Now I have way more days – not every day – when I think, 'Today was a pretty good day.'"

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