Unique mental health program is breaking down barriers and rebuilding lives

For former B.R.I.D.G.E. patient, Ann Vickery, it was the lesson in learning how to fail that really taught her how to succeed. “I think that one of the most important lessons I learned from B.R.I.D.G.E. was the idea that I could redefine success and failure,” says Vickery. “That I could be defined, not by my job and the amount of money I made, but by who I helped and what I did with my life.”

The B.R.I.D.G.E. program is a unique endeavour that was developed by mental health staff at Markham Stouffville Hospital. B.R.I.D.G.E. is an acronym which stands for Building, Recovering, Initiating, Developing, Growing, and Empowering. It also describes the process patients go through on their healing journey.

Suffering from depression and general anxiety, Vickery turned to B.R.I.D.G.E. after her psychiatrist recommended she try the program to help her get back on track with her life. Vickery, who began attending the mental health program at the hospital, was initially hesitant about sharing her problems in a group setting.

“When I initially came in for the program, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. It took about a month to really get acclimatized to the groups and get comfortable talking and sharing, but during the process, I developed a lot of really good friendships and I learned that I wasn’t the only one with these problems.”

“That is the purpose of B.R.I.D.G.E.,” says Nancy Day, an Occupational Therapist with Markham Stouffville Hospital, who runs the program with her colleagues. Giving patients the tools and confidence to help themselves is the first step on the path to recovery. “The program helps participants to establish short term goals, by teaching them life skills and coping strategies to achieve those goals,” explains Day. “This helps our patients develop independence, confidence and a sense of achievement; qualities that they need to truly regain control of their lives.”

“We use a client centered approach in the B.R.I.D.G.E. program,” explains Karen McLeod, Manager of Markham Stouffville Hospital’s Inpatient and B.R.I.D.G.E. programs. “Our patients have a lot of input into what sort of treatment strategies they want to learn on a daily and weekly basis. We tailor the program to the person’s needs and encourage their participation with program development.”

“We aim to have a very fluid curriculum and program,” adds Day. “Our group content reflects topics that the participants request related to their mental health needs and challenges. Our patients are encouraged to promote healing by supporting each other in the group and talking out their issues.”

Unlike traditional day treatment programs, inpatients are included in many of the B.R.I.D.G.E groups attended by those already discharged who attend as outpatients. This unique feature of B.R.I.D.G.E. was built in to provide a smooth transition for patients moving from inpatient to outpatient status. “It can vary from individual to individual on how long a person will stay in the program,” explains Day. “It might only be a few weeks to a few months. Overall, the average length of time is around three months, but there can be people who stay longer, based on their needs.”

“I ended up being in the program for about five months,” says Vickery. “At first, I found it difficult to motivate myself to come, but eventually I found it gave me a routine and a purpose to get me out of my house. In the end, I began to enjoy coming here and found it gave me an understanding of my illness, the limitations of it and the opportunities with it.”
“We are very proud of this program,” says McLeod. “We’re proud of the fact we don’t have a set length of time that patients can be in the program, that there are no wait times to access the program and that it is flexible enough to accommodate patients in all stages of the healing process.”

Another unique element of the program is that it is structured to give patients regular experiences within their local community. “Because linking to the community is such an important part of B.R.I.D.G.E., we have a formal partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). They offer a social/recreational, recovery based program which patients can access for as long as they want support,” explains Day. “Also, by exposing patients to community activities and supports we help them overcome their wariness of interacting with people and situations outside their comfort zone.”
Volunteering plays a big role in this community interaction as patients are encouraged to donate their time to organizations and give back; which becomes a key factor in their recovery process. “Initially when it was suggested that I try volunteering, I was taken by surprise,” explains Vickery. “I had never thought about volunteering because I was always working and when I was sick, it seemed less important. But, it became such a huge part of my healing journey because it allowed me to feel needed and important again; like I was making a difference.”

Vickery donated her time to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; a non-profit organization that gave her plenty of opportunities to get involved. “I started volunteering by walking the dogs or sitting in a room and letting the cats crawl all over me and it was the first time I felt joy again because all they wanted was love,” says Vickery. “It was a huge step forward for me. There were no expectations, I could come and go when I wanted. I think it really helped me heal too, because it built my self esteem and gave me the feeling I was helping someone else. That is important because when you are sick with a mental illness, all you do in your mind is think of your problems and this let me think of something and someone else.”

Vickery has since continued to donate her time to other organizations, including the CMHA. She has also returned to the B.R.I.D.G.E. program, but not as a patient. She now helps others learn how to achieve success in their own lives through her presentations in which she shares her story and reinforces the need for healthy coping mechanisms.

“I’ve been giving back by doing life skills workshops with patients at CMHA and talking to them about different topics that relate to mental health issues, self esteem and assertiveness,” says Vickery. “I am also doing a workshop for B.R.I.D.G.E. called ‘Toolkit for Recovery’ where I talk about, on the positive side, things people can do to help get through the recovery process and get back into the swing of things.”

“Ann Vickery is a true example of how defining success is an individual thing,” says Day. “She sees the purpose of her life differently now than she did before she became ill. She has also seen how her illness changed her life and, for her, improved it in a way that she didn’t expect. For her and us, that’s a huge marker of success.”

Aside from her volunteering, Vickery has also become somewhat of a sensation on the local art scene with her paintings-another new activity which she never considered until she became ill. “At the time, I was open to anything new,” says Vickery. “And the response I got from people was so amazing. Since then, I have done exhibits, I have done art shows, I have a person who represents me, I have sold pieces and I am continuing to experiment. That is what B.R.I.D.G.E. taught me, that I don’t have to end up in the same place. I can forge a new path and that is what I have been doing for the last two and half years, just reinventing and redefining a new me so that I get up and feel better everyday.”

For more information on Markham Stouffville Hospital’s B.R.I.D.G.E. program, visit www.msh.on.ca.