On the ‘road’ to recovery: Social worker turned personal experience with depression into innovative running program for teens

“It’s given me something to live for,” says Stephanie, a 16-year-old who suffers from clinical depression. Referring to a unique running program for teens, Stephanie echoes the feelings of numerous teens and their families who have been a part of Dan McGann’s innovative Teen Run Group Therapy Program.

For McGann, a social worker in The Credit Valley Hospital’s Child and Family Clinic, running provided the outlet he needed to cope with his own depression and anxiety. So it seemed natural when he decided to create a running program for the teens he counselled at the hospital. Launched in 2006, the Teen Run Group Therapy Program provides teens with a unique approach to coping with depression. McGann’s willingness to talk about his own mental health challenges has helped to break down the stigma too often associated with mental illness.

“I ran as a child to cope with a turbulent home life, and took up running again as an adult after having a major depressive episode with severe anxiety,” explains McGann. “Running helped me with my depression, and I was able to manage stress better.”

Twice a week for 12 weeks, McGann meets with a group of 14- to 19-year-olds to train for local five and 10 kilometre races. The teen run program has grown from a group of nine teens in 2006 to now more than 40 teens and parents in each 12-week session. Guest speakers share inspirational stories and health information while McGann and a team of volunteer coaches help the teens with the physical components of the program. Participants are asked to record their moods before and after each run, using a scale from one to 10. Most begin with a two or three, and end with a six, seven or eight after the run. “For teens the program is focused on building confidence and setting goals,” says McGann. “Each week there is an accomplishment and celebration of a new goal, which serves to build self-control and self-confidence.”

Adolescent depression is a serious problem and a major public health issue. McGann notes that “an estimated 10-20 per cent of teens suffer from depression and of that 20 per cent, anywhere from 25 to 50 per cent suffer from associated anxiety disorder.” According to the Canadian Paediatric Society suicide is the second highest cause of death among teens, and up to 90 per cent of suicides are preceded by a history of mental illness, or disorders such as depression. But as McGann notes, “mental illness can be treated effectively.”

“I get this feeling I like to call ‘unbreakable’,” says Hailey, a teen who completed the run program, and returned to help as a volunteer coach, along with her mother. Reflecting on what a difference the running program has made in her life, she says “I like to push myself. (Now) I’ll never say that I don’t matter, never say that I’m weak. I’m a runner, and I feel amazing.”

McGann recently received national recognition for his innovative running program for teens. In June, he received the National Quality of Life Award from theCanadianCollegeof Health Leaders. This annual award honours those who work to improve the lives of their patients and their families as well as the community through their desire, creativity and dedication.

“We are thrilled that this program has been recognized for the impact that it has on the quality of life of our patients, their families and this community,” says Michelle DiEmanuele, President and CEO of The Credit Valley Hospital. “Dan’s program exemplifies life-long learning through its fully applicable life management skills. Dan, his volunteer team and the patients continually demonstrate commitment, integrity and accountability as they work to identify challenges, set goals, establish action plans and celebrate their achievements.”

The success of the teen run program has inspired a number of centres across the country to replicate similar programs based on McGann’s model, including: University of Toronto Mississauga’s Student Services, St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton, Trillium Health Centre, and a program in Victoria, BC, started by a former Masters of Social Work student of McGann’s.

Cameron Helps, an organization committed to raising awareness about teen suicide and how physical activity can reduce depression and improve mental health, has launched Team Unbreakable, a youth running therapy program, based on McGann’s running program for teens. As part of Team Unbreakable, the organization has developed the Run Program Start-Up Kit which will be provided to hospitals, mental health organizations and schools acrossCanada interested in launching their own program.

According to McGann, “everyone has the potential to get over those hills in life. It’s all about believing that you can – condition your focus on doing and moving – mastery and happiness is all about running towards your fears ~ not running from them.”