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Aimee Cooper had no idea that extreme stress could cause seizures.

She learned this terrible fact last fall after her 11-year-old daughter, Mady, was found unconscious on the school playground and had to be rushed to the Alberta Children’s Hospital.

“We were scared and confused,” says Aimee. “Nothing like this had ever happened before and then suddenly Mady was seizing four times a day, sometimes for as long as an hour.”

After extensive testing, doctors determined that Mady was suffering from psychogenic seizures and needed treatment from mental health specialists in hospital. After two admissions, Aimee and her husband, Trent, were grateful and eager to bring Mady home. Yet they worried about being able to care for their daughter on their own.

Thankfully, that’s when they were referred to the Acute at Home program.

This innovative community-funded outreach service enables children in mental health crisis to receive care in the comfort of their own homes from specially trained therapists, social workers and nurses. They deliver intensive mental health care for children and teens — in person, by video or phone — using treatments tailored to their needs. It was exactly the bridge they needed. Aimee says they looked forward to their weekly Zoom meetings. They also connected with counsellors by phone and text in between.

The Acute at Home team helped them better understand Mady’s illness, settled their fears, gave them practical tools and advice on how to manage difficult situations, and worked hard to support Mady — both at home and at school.

“During the pandemic, Acute at Home has become one of the most active programs in our service,” says Carol Coventry, manager with the Child and Adolescent Addiction, Mental Health and Psychiatry Program.

“It has been absolutely vital to kids and families whose mental health has worsened with school and recreational disruptions, separation from loved ones and concerns about the virus itself.” - Carol Coventry, Manager, Child and Adolescent Addiction, Mental Health and Psychiatry Program

Today, Aimee is happy to say that Mady has far more good days than bad and she’s back to doing things kids her age should be enjoying — like dance, swimming and climbing trees.

“Acute at Home was our lifeline,” says Aimee. “We are so grateful to the generous people who’ve made the program possible. I don’t know how we would have survived without it. I feel in my heart, having this support has kept our daughter from having to go back to the hospital many times.”

The Build Them Up campaign is funding the creation of Canada’s first translational research clinic using non-invasive brain stimulation to treat depression in adolescents.

Despite COVID-19 delays across the health and research systems, the team has made significant strides in advancing innovative work that will help families well before the Centre opens.

Last January, they recruited Dr. Kayla Stone from Utrecht University in the Netherlands to lead the overall project. A rising star in experimental psychology, Dr. Stone and the team are planning to launch a number of important new studies this spring, including one to help pinpoint biological markers that would enable more accurate diagnosis and treatment for young people with major depressive disorder.

At the same time, the team plans to utilize transcranial magnetic stimulation

(TMS) and neuro-imaging technology to help young people with other conditions that commonly occur with depression. These conditions include:

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder

  • Anxiety disorders

  • Eating disorders

Thanks to you, specialists at the Alberta Children’s Hospital and Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute continue to lead the nation in exploring brain stimulation as a novel therapy for children with brain-related disorders.

By supporting the Build Them Up campaign, you have enabled hundreds of primary care providers across the province to receive specialized training in diagnosing and treating mental health concerns in children and youth through CanREACH. Family physicians, nurse practitioners, social workers and pediatricians are among the professionals who have benefited from this intensive training.

CanREACH is designed to build confidence in frontline workers’ own ability to support families facing mental health challenges. Family physicians receive little training on youth mental health during medical school. This has resulted in many feeling unprepared to treat or even recognize a mental health condition in the early stages.

CanREACH provides trainees with the tools they need to feel confident in identifying and overseeing a therapy plan for families with a child facing a mental health challenge. The benefits have been far-reaching.

Earlier this year, CanREACH coordinators found themselves forced to quickly change plans for their spring training session due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cancelling altogether was simply not an option, says Program Facilitator Dr. Eden McCaffrey. “Primary care providers still need this training, and now more than ever, as many people’s mental health is deteriorating,” she says.

Two exciting things happened. First, CanREACH partnered with the University of Calgary’s Office of Continuing Medical Education and Professional Development to provide a virtual presentation on the decompensation of mental health during the pandemic for up to 800 primary care providers across Alberta.

Second, the CanREACH staff transitioned the in-person course to an online platform and were able to offer two sessions this fall, providing the full training to an additional 82 physicians and frontline workers. The course also included information on how to screen for conditions such as anxiety and depression when meeting with a patient via phone or video conferencing rather than seeing them in person.

“With this model of training, we’ve been able to reach people we never would have before,” says Dr. McCaffrey, adding primary care providers all the way from Taber to Grande Cache were able to take part. While typically 30% of in-person trainees are from rural communities, the online training saw that number increase to more than 50%, says Dr. McCaffrey.

“Practitioners from rural communities are one of our biggest targets,” she says. “They’re really in the trenches, as they don’t always have easy access to other mental health resources to support them or refer their patients to.” Feedback from the virtual training was incredibly positive and plans to use this model in the spring of 2021 and potentially beyond are underway.

'CanREACH has filled a void and it absolutely changed my practice'

There are people who travel to Dr. Hollins’ family practice from more than an hour away to see him. That’s because, thanks to his CanREACH training, Dr. Hollins is well equipped to treat mental health concerns. That wasn’t always the case, though.

Dr. Beren Hollins

“Family physicians often feel very undertrained in this area,” he says, adding it’s estimated that doctors won’t pick up on depression in about 50% of children who are experiencing symptoms.

“CanREACH has filled a void and it absolutely changed my practice,” says Dr. Hollins. “Suddenly I felt confident to see these families, diagnose them and come up with plans.”

Feedback from his patients’ parents, teachers and principals has been incredibly encouraging. And, many of the skills he’s gained in helping youth are transferrable to supporting adult mental health as well.

I began noticing signs of what I would later learn were anxiety and Attention Deficit Disorder in my daughter when she was in third grade. However, our journey to getting her diagnosed and finding a treatment plan took a long time.
We were referred to a number of specialists, but my daughter didn’t see any of them long or frequently enough to build rapport and she wasn’t experiencing any positive changes. Her frustration was mounting and so was mine, since I just wanted her to feel better. It was hard watching her struggle. Then, along came Dr. Hollins, a family doctor who had been specially trained in child and youth mental health.
There was no wait to see him and he quickly proved to us that he knew what he was doing and could support us in a way that made sense for our whole family. Now, my daughter sees him and only him and the two of them have built a strong relationship of trust.
It’s a blessing to be supported in our own community. We’re so thankful the CanREACH program exists because physicians like Dr. Hollins are making a difference across the province for families like mine.

- Mother of a Dr. Hollins patient

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