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Youth walk program helps those with mental illness

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A new partnership between Parks Canada and Rouge Valley Health System helps those with mental illness

By Jane Kitchen

Shannon O’Reilly knows what can lift her mood – heading outside for a walk in the woods.

Diagnosed with psychosis in August 2013, the 21-year-old has just completed her participation in the first Mood Walks program at the Rouge Valley Centenary (RVC) hospital campus in Scarborough. Launched in May, the program is part of Rouge Valley’s outpatient mental health services for youth between the ages of 13 and 23.

The Mood Walks program with Rouge Valley consisted of a series of 10 guided hikes: half through Morningside Park, right behind RVC; and half through the Rouge National Urban Park in Toronto. Stephanie Francois, RVC social worker with the First Intervention Treatment Team (FITT) program, says that the young participants who may have anxiety, depression and psychosis see many benefits to their mental and physical health. “The program allows them to connect with other people and to nature,” she says. “The walks are led by guides from Parks Canada, so participants learn more about the natural environment around them, while being in a safe place in which to socialize.”

O’Reilly agrees. “I felt super safe,” she says about her participation in the program. “I didn’t feel like I was just a patient. I wasn’t thinking about my mental health or my issues, or anything else in my life. The things we started to talk about in nature helped us to heal. We leave our negativity in the forest.”

O’Reilly has been a patient in the FITT program for three years, and graduated from it last month. FITT runs out of the Shoniker Clinic at RVC, a child and adolescent outpatient mental health clinic. It has been providing mental health services to youth in Scarborough and west Durham for over 40 years. The clinic receives approximately 1,700 referrals, and records over 13,000 office visits, per year.

“Being diagnosed with psychosis was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through in my life,” says O’Reilly, “But Stephanie and the Shoniker Clinic team really helped me, with medications, and programs on offer such as yoga. Mood Walks was the cherry on top.”

Even though the program is over, O’Reilly’s involvement with Mood Walks is not. She is looking forward to continuing as a peer mentor in the program. Meanwhile, she has built up a support system to carry her forward. “Through the walks, I met people I consider to be friends and I will text them now. And, I can be of assistance to the people I’ve met, who are maybe starting out on their wellness journey.”

The Mood Walks initiative at RVC is one of 40 Mood Walks programs across Ontario that are sponsored by the Canadian Mental Health Association, the provincial government, Ontario Parks and Hike Ontario. Rouge Valley’s mental health program is appreciative of the new partnership with Parks Canada for this initiative. Says Francois: “Parks Canada has been gracious, offering their time, looking after busing, and donating incentives for the participants.”

“Parks Canada was amazing,” says O’Reilly. “They always gave us a memento, like a water bottle or a key chain, something to show our families. They treated us so well!”

Mood Walks has inspired her to get outside on her own, and with her boyfriend and family. “If there’s a tree, let’s go,” she jokes. “Nature, air to breathe, a path, it makes you feel better. And, it’s good for your health.”

Jane Kitchen is Communications Specialist at RVHS.




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