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At Medicine Shoppe, pharmacists take the time to share mental health advice and information.

When pharmacist Hugh Toner was 21 years old, he suffered from depression.

"It was so dark, I couldn't see the end of the tunnel," Toner says. He was a pharmacy student, and he was too embarrassed by his problem to talk about it. "I figured I should know better; I should know how to handle it," he says. So he kept his mental health to himself before finally telling his doctor.

Today, Toner is open about his experience. He's in his early fifties and owns two independent Medicine Shoppe pharmacies in Sydney, Nova Scotia. At work, his first priority is helping clients with mental health issues. Pharmacists are on the front line of health care and, as his work demonstrates, they can support patients in many ways.

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At any given moment, mental health problems affect approximately 20 per cent of the population. But somehow, the act of seeking help in a mental health crisis is still plagued by stigma. This kind of illness is the second-most common thing that Medicine Shoppe pharmacies across Canada see prescriptions for, and people from all walks of life – energetic teenagers, overworked parents, or widowed retirees – visit local pharmacies to seek treatment.

But Toner also worries about those who don't come and don't access help elsewhere. Pharmacists "are some of the most readily available healthcare professionals out there, because we're here all week long," he says. Anybody can walk in to ask for help and advice. At his pharmacies, he works to create a more supportive environment for people who are experiencing problems with mental health. Just visiting a pharmacy could make the difference, he says, and it doesn't require booking an appointment or travelling to a doctor or therapist.

By the time they've reached 40 years of age, half of Canadians have experienced things like not only depression but also bipolar disorder, anxiety, addiction and phobias. Facing these things alone is challenging. Toner notes, for instance, that nearly three-quarters of patients stop taking their antidepressant medication ninety days after first use. It makes sense: side effects are common and pervasive, and there isn't always enough support for newly diagnosed patients. When Toner was in his dark phase, decades ago, he struggled with side effects from his medications – dry mouth, stomach pain, drowsiness. He tried more than one pill before finding the right one. He had to work with doctors to find effective treatment, and so he understands the value of communication.

Anyone struggling with depression – or any other kind of mental illness – can walk into a Medicine Shoppe and ask for advice on medication use, side-effect management or even initial assessments. Working on a long-term plan with a pharmacist who knows them by name and sees them every day could help patients stay optimistic and diligent with their medication. Toner makes it a point to call clients at home a few days after their visit to make sure everything is going smoothly.

Often treatment is focused on the physical disease and not the individual person. Health care professionals can make the mistake of not realizing that "people who are struggling with

depression have other health issues too," Toner says. "They get sick, get their appendix out, have a heart attack." But Toner doesn't want to compartmentalize medical issues. Part of a proper healthcare strategy, he says, is treating the patient as a whole person – over a long period of time.

That means coordinating between different branches of medicine. If patients want to take prescription medicine to get better, he'll speak with them about proper use and adherence. But if they come in reluctantly with a doctor's note and express more interest in alternative care or therapeutic work, he can advise on those options, too. The most important thing, especially when it comes to mental health, is comfort.

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Toner's experience with depression taught him to look at medical care as a lifetime partnership between patients and professionals. "I made the decision I was going to figure out how my mind works and never be depressed again," he says. "Now I talk about it with patients, and I help them through their own problems, too."

By the time they reach 40 years of age, half of Canadians have struggled with mental health issues.

A strong connection between the patient and pharmacist is the most important thing for treating mental health. Although Medicine Shoppe pharmacists in different provinces offer different services, all offer the Medicine Shoppe standard of care. Here are some examples of how your pharmacist can help with mental health:

• First assessments

Sometimes patients visit the pharmacy without a diagnosis. They don't feel right, but they're not sure what. A pharmacist can help you assess that feeling and decide what steps to take next.

• Alternative treatments

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Though medication is an important part of treatment for a number of people, Medicine Shoppe's holistic approach to wellness means that pharmacists may also suggest complementary treatment if appropriate. That might mean behavioral therapy, relaxation techniques or a lifestyle change like quitting smoking.

• Medication adherence

The Medicine Shoppe's Custom Renewals program can help ensure you continue to take your medication appropriately by synchronizing your medication renewal dates and providing reminders before your prescription refill date.

• Medication overview

Toner encourages his patients to keep in touch, so that they can call or visit whenever they have questions or concerns about their prescriptions. If there is an issue, he can discuss side effects and other options for treatment, phone the patient's physician to consult or fax recommendations for new drugs. "Patients should always walk away happier than when they came in," he says.

This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Edge Content Studio, in consultation with an advertiser. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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