ACCESS Open Minds is an initiative that the Foundation is excited to help support this coming year. The initiative offers promising services that will streamline mental health care pathways for youth. Recently the Mental Health Foundation staff, alongside representatives from Alberta Health Services and the Graham Boeckh Foundation, had an opportunity to take a tour inside the Edmonton ACCESS Open Minds site clinic at the Bill Rees YMCA, and to speak with its clinicians and program staff.
About the Site
The vision for the ACCESS OM space is to be a welcoming environment that youth will want to visit. The clinic’s location at Bill Rees is part of this vision; they chose the site because of its non-stigmatizing nature. If a youth wants to access mental health services, walking into the YMCA doesn’t immediately announce to the world the purpose of their visit. This is supposed to make the first step finding help easy instead of scary, or clinical like at a hospital. The main space and the counselling rooms have a comforting feel like a living room in a home, a space in which you can openly talk.
ACCESS OM hopes to improve early identification by providing access points in places where youth regularly frequent and often first present their need for care. The YMCA is an ideal location for the project due to the high volume of youth traffic it receives. It is easily reached through public transportation and it isn’t located within the inner city. The site’s staff stressed that youth shouldn’t have to go to the inner city for addiction and mental health care. In the consultation phase, staff spoke to a youth advisory council. The youth expressed that finding help should feel like you’re going to a better place, like you’re going UP.
Resources for addressing child and adolescent health are scarce at present. Typically, youth must reach a certain threshold of mental illness to get help. The average family seeking out mental health care for their child will attempt to access services 3.2 times before getting connected to appropriate care. Not so at ACCESS OM; youth do not have to meet a clinical threshold to engage the program. “People don’t seek out clinical services for fun,” we are told. People who have decided to seek mental health services are not expected to prove they are sick enough for care, and there are no conditions—such as ending substance use—for getting help.
Currently clients hear about services mainly through word of mouth; friends and family who have benefited often pass their experience along. There is also a phone number on the ACCESS OM website for intake services. In the past year, walk-ins have increased from zero to three or four a day. This is good news: many youth typically present at emergency departments in crisis. The ACCESS OM clinic provides an alternative space for urgent needs where it is much easier to assess and provide referrals for patients.
Seeking out mental health services is already a stressful experience; providing help to navigate the system ensures that families and youth undergo less unnecessary stress going forward. The focus is on what the initiative can offer people early in order to avoid complex needs down the road.
Engagement is the program’s top priority, so caseloads are kept small. This leaves the program’s clinicians space to connect and build relationships with their clients. Fostering trust with young people seeking help can be a long process. Not everyone who connects with the clinicians is ready to receive full treatment yet. It is the clinicians’ job to meet young people where they are at in their care pathway and to be a dependable point of support.
ACCESS OM’s two clinicians, Owen and Seren, spoke to our group about their day to day work with participating youth. Seren is currently working with 16 young people and Owen works with closer to 20 young people. According to Seren, their daily tasks fluctuate. They assertively engage the community by rotating through different ACCESS youth hubs, each of which has specific drop-in hours every week. They are also attempting to build presence in local high schools.
Other days, they connect with youth who have left their information in the clinicians’ voicemail inbox. How patients access care is very geographically determined; where youth live can be a huge barrier to getting help. Some of the youth that Owen and Seren engage live on the edge of the city or all the way in Spruce Grove. They help these patients logistically, connecting them with services by providing transportation to appointments and youth activities, or teaching them to navigate public transportation.
Building relationships is a series of small steps, from meeting youth in coffee shops close to home so they get used to leaving the house, to helping them meet their basic needs and wellness goals. Sometimes, the clinicians’ job is just to hang out and be a positive presence. Owen tells us about one of his clients who seemed frustrated with his progress. Instead of focusing on mental health services, Owen took the youth to a music shop and they spent the day playing instruments, which had a positive effect on the youth. Creating such positive impressions helps the two clinicians fulfill their role of connecting youth to appropriate Alberta Health programs.
One thing I took away from our visit to the ACCESS OM clinic was that youth have very personal needs, and that services need to be individualized to reflect that. What works for one young person will not necessarily help another. The engaged, thoughtful service that Owen and Seren provide will hopefully result in less disconnect from the system and prevent disengagement of help-seeking youth, ultimately preventing more severe cases later on.
Youth often don’t access appropriate care because they don’t know what services are out there. If they don’t know what services exist, how are youth supposed to explain what they need? The ACCESS program staff tell us they are glad they finally have a program to send people to for guidance. The door is always open.
You can help support ACCESS OM programming in Edmonton. Donate today or buy tickets to Crescendo on June 9, which benefits us and the Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation, with proceeds going to peer support and e-mental health programming at ACCESS Open Minds in Edmonton.