Treating the whole person to fight mental illness

By Sebastian Dobosz

At St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, innovation and research directly shape the care that patients receive every day. Pioneering comprehensive treatments for mood disorders gives clinicians new ways to engage patients diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder.

By using running, recreation and art as forms of therapy, researchers and mental health professionals improve patients’ quality of life and help them to reintegrate into their community.

Nearly one in 10 Canadians will experience a mood disorder in their lifetimes. Common mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder can lower a person’s quality of life and make everyday tasks challenging.

“The two major treatment options for mood disorders are cognitive-behavioural therapy and pharmacological interventions,” says Sharon Simons, Manager of Mood Disorders at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton. “Recently however, we’ve started to look at other forms of treatment that not only work to treat mood disorders, but also improve the patients’ quality of life and reintegrate them into their communities.”

One example of these initiatives is Team Unbreakable. Team Unbreakable began as a pilot study to determine the effects of running therapy on mood disorders. For twelve weeks, participants aged 16-25 took part in a running group twice a week.

The initial success of this program has led to its expansion as a clinical intervention. Now, running therapy is offered as a treatment option to patients enrolled in the mood disorders program.

“Preliminary evaluation of the program is promising”, says Dr. Margaret McKinnon, Psychologist and Co-Academic Head of the Mood Disorders Program at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton. “We are currently analyzing our findings in relation to the efficacy of this approach in a chronic, tertiary care setting. In other words, our research asks whether this approach is effective in the treatment-resistant, severely ill patients with multiple co-morbidities that we serve.”

Similar to Team Unbreakable, St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton is currently testing recreation therapy as a treatment for mood disorders. Participants take part in one of three retreats per year that rely on teamwork to overcome physical challenges. Depending on the season, participants can find themselves ice-climbing and snowshoeing, or horseback riding and walking high ropes.

“The idea is that the participants will take what they learn from facing these challenges together and apply them to the real world,” says Jeff Whattam, recreation therapist at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton. “Having debriefing sessions between the activities helps participants to talk about their experiences and how they are feeling throughout the retreat.”

While running and recreation therapy encourage participants to explore physical challenges, art therapy encourages them to explore their creativity. Participants work with an art therapist to express their thoughts and feelings in visual forms.

“Art therapy helps patients to communicate their inner feelings,” says Sharon Simons. “Much like with running or recreation therapy, insights gained by art therapy participants can help them progress in other forms of therapy that they receive.”

Evaluating these new treatment approaches through research will give mental health professionals new ways to engage with and treat patients.

“The Mood Disorders Program places clear emphasis on the evaluation and on-going improvement of care initiatives,” says Dr. McKinnon. “Our success with Team Unbreakable is illustrative in that our research seeks not only to validate this treatment approach but also to identify areas for improvement and growth.”

In order to foster a culture where patients are treated whole, the mood disorders program at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton combines professionals from a number of areas to deliver holistic care. Patients interact with psychologists and psychiatrists, but also with occupational therapists, pharmacists, research staff, social workers, dieticians, and more.

A collaborative care team allows the program to treat patients’ illnesses, as well as help them to function better in their daily lives. It also allows for innovative care practices to be tested through research and become a part of practice.

Treating the whole person means caring for all aspects of a person’s health. Combining medical and mental health care allows patients to receive treatment across the spectrum of care. Combining existing practices with innovative new treatments allows patient care at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton to grow and evolve according to patients’ needs.

“Everything we do is a partnership with our patients,” says Sharon Simons. “If we can treat their illness and make a positive difference in their lives, we succeed.”

Sebastian Dobosz is a Research Communications Officer at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton.