Pilot program aims to help Calgary families navigate the youth mental health system

This story is part two in a five part series on the state of youth mental health in Calgary.


Erin Gionet says she had the worst night of her life when she called the ambulance fearing that one of her teenage sons might commit suicide.

“It really, really scared me, and I just thought that if I don’t do all I can to get help for my child, I’ll never forgive myself.”

Prior to that time in November 2020 and then later, the Calgary mother said it would have been of tremendous help and relief if someone had guided them through the complex landscape of youth mental health in the city.

“Trying to navigate a system when you’re in a crisis is really, really hard because you have this immediate need to try and help a family member,” she said.

“Also having to make a lot of phone calls and get lots of email lists and websites… it can be really, really confusing.”

Pilot navigation project

Hull Services, a Calgary-based youth and family mental health agency, is now trying to provide families with the kind of help Gionet says they need. He launched a six-month navigation pilot project in August.

Certified psychologist April MacDougall is the very first sailor in history.

“It can be a very isolating process for families, and it can be overwhelming to find out on your own if you don’t know the system,” she said.

MacDougall’s job is to help families of children and youth navigate mental health and addiction services in the Calgary area. Its free service doesn’t mean there won’t be waiting lists or frustrations, but it does mean families have someone to talk to throughout the process.

She says families contacting her with young people face a variety of challenges, including stress, parent-child conflict, the impacts of the pandemic, substance abuse, self-harm and suicidal thoughts or ideation.

Erin Gionet says it would have been of great help to his family if there had been a navigator available to help them last year when their son was going through a mental health crisis. (Justin Pennell / CBC)

In the five months since the program started, MacDougall says she has worked with more than 65 families, and the feedback so far has been positive.

“The families appreciated having someone to talk to about what is going on, someone who is knowledgeable, someone who is connected to the system,” she said.

“They appreciate the tracking aspect of the service because there are often obstacles or unforeseen changes in needs. It can be very dynamic and complex with what families are going through.

Confused system

Gionet says a navigator would have helped his family a lot when their 15-year-old son, whom CBC News agreed not to name, landed in hospital last year.

He wouldn’t get out of bed for days at a time. He was dropping out of school. We were getting calls from the school about the behavior, and it was not his style at all. I felt like a stranger was living in my house, ”she said.

“He was engaged in a lot of risky behaviors that worried me quite a bit and expressed suicidal thoughts. And by questioning him, I determined that this was something we needed to take seriously.”

Gionet ended up calling an ambulance and his son was eventually admitted.

The situation caused a lot of turmoil in their family. Gionet, who was working as a health care researcher doing her Masters in Health Sciences at the University of Calgary, decided to take time away from both. She wanted to focus on helping her son and navigating what she calls a confusing youth mental health system.

April MacDougall, Registered Psychologist, is the Mental Health and Addictions Navigator at Hull Services in Calgary. (Submitted by April MacDougall)

This confusion is something that Dr. Stephen Freedman, pediatric emergency physician at Alberta Children’s Hospital, sees in his work.

The mental health system, in particular, is difficult and complex to navigate, which is why I think a lot of children are sent to the emergency department because they don’t know how to navigate the community on their own ” , did he declare. noted.

According to the latest statistics from Alberta Health Services, emergency room visits at Alberta Children’s Hospital for youth with mental health problems have increased by almost 40% since 2018. Self-harm cases – which are counted separately – have more than doubled.

Research inspired by personal experience

Gionet says that while going through her own family crisis, she kept thinking about the obstacles they faced in accessing and finding the right supports.

“If it is that difficult for me, as someone who is already working in the health care system, has connections in college, has education and training in this area – I can only imagine how it must be difficult for other families, ”she said. .

Now back in school and working on his masters, Gionet says his own experience inspired his thesis.

“My research focuses on the role of patient and peer referral for families and caregivers of children and adolescents who interact with the mental health and addiction system,” she said.

Erin Gionet’s experience prompted her to focus her master’s thesis on referral for patients in the youth mental health system. (Justin Pennell / CBC)

As part of her research, she will work with patient advisers and lead focus groups with community members accessing Calgary’s youth mental health services.

“I hope that through this work we will have a better idea of ​​the impact that supporting caregivers will have on this journey,” she said.

Now, more than a year after calling the ambulance, Gionet says things are looking up for his son.

“He needs to manage his ADHD with medication, skills training and other types of treatment programs like this, but he’s doing a lot better. He’s halfway through grade 12 and he’s doing really, really well, ”she said.

Pilot funding

Hull Services says the concept of the browser program has been discussed for years in Calgary, but the funding to make it happen is only now in place.

The pilot project has a budget of $ 80,000, including over $ 56,000 from the city’s Change Can’t Wait program.

Change Can’t Wait is part of the city’s mental health and additions investment framework. It aims to support new ideas that can bring change to families in the community.

The pilot’s remaining funds come from other sources of Hull revenue.

The city said the Navigator pilot would submit a report on the program in January and that it could be eligible for additional funding for two years if it proves effective.


If you or someone you love is struggling, AHS recommends the following resources:


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