There is a saying that youth vote with their feet – if they are interested, they will show up. This has certainly been the case for youths in St. Joseph’s Adolescent Psychiatry Outreach Program at Parkwood Institute.
With the rise of COVID-19, and restrictions put in place, clinical staff within the Adolescent Outreach Psychiatry program suggested to their patients that they continue receiving care – including crucial therapy sessions - virtually through the use of technology.
Perhaps not with their feet, but with a click of a button – youths aged 13 – 18, facing complex mental health challenges are now continuing their care through a safe and secure WebEx platform during the pandemic.
“It’s important that we found a way to continue this therapy to an already vulnerable population during a time when many are feeling anxious and isolated,” says Jordan McCormick, social worker in the Adolescent Outreach Program. “The virtual therapy sessions enable us to continue providing high quality and tailored treatments to youth in need of these complex services.”
The outreach team within St. Joseph’s Adolescent Psychiatry Program specializes in therapeutic support such as psychotherapy, skills training, group and individual therapy and psychiatric consultation as well as education and prevention for adolescents experiencing complex mental health challenges that may have developed over time due to contributing factors such as their environment, invalidation, genetic predisposition, and struggles with emotion regulation.
Currently, six outpatients from the program have committed to ongoing, weekly virtual Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) sessions, facilitated by a team of mental health care professionals, including a psychiatrist, registered nurses and social worker. The sessions run for five weeks at a time, over the course of 20 weeks in total.
DBT is an evidence-based model of therapy that helps people learn and use new skills and strategies to better cope with distress, regulate emotions, and improve their relationships and interactions with others. Once completed, the graduated program allows youth to learn the necessary skills to better manage daily life and stressors.
The team was initially providing care by phone to patients when the COVID-19 pandemic began, but soon discovered that a face-to-face approach was the best way to adapt to the current situation.
“Replicating the previous in-person model of care as much as possible helped us to maintain a level of trust with our patients,” says registered nurse Patrizia Travis. “It’s incredibly hard for many to open up and share their experiences - most feel more comfortable being able to see us as well as hear us during the sessions.”
The virtual sessions also have a peer support component, to help the youth develop healthy interactions with the others as they advance in their care and rely less on clinicians for support. Families of patients are also kept well-informed of progress made and on the transition to the new virtual model.
Although the team has had to overcome some challenges with the new technology, many of the patients participating have begun to experience the benefits of the continued program.
“I find it really important to be able to still have therapy and to have the ability to connect and reach out to my therapist,” says Laura, a patient of the program. “Right now, it’s a challenging time for everyone, but it’s really hard for those of us who really struggle with emotions and our mental health. This hits us hard.”
Another patient, who will soon be graduating from the program says, "overall, I have to say this long process has definitely been worth it. I learned so much from everyone and I couldn’t feel more accepted and cared for. They helped me during the good and the bad times and now I stand stronger than I was before entering into DBT. I will always be thankful for the times I had at Parkwood Institute and for the help and support I got."
The outreach team continues to alter and modify their virtual care therapy, based on clinical best practices, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds. But a focus on patients is always at the forefront.
“We want them to know that we care about them and we were driven to find solutions to continue their care the best way possible,” says Jordan.