Care around the campfire
Camp breaks down walls, builds connections for patients
In the waning days of summer, staff and patients from The Royal’s Community Mental Health Program get together for two nights and three days of summer fun. They’re at a campground nestled against the Rideau River, among sprawling maples, swaying willows, and tall cedars.
More importantly, they’re together — connected, supported, and able to enjoy the moment. It sounds simple, but days like these can be elusive when you have a mental illness.
“For many people with severe and persistent mental illness, it’s like a wall gets put between you and other people your age; it’s like fun forgot you,” said Dr. Susan Farrell, clinical director of The Royal’s Community Mental Health Program. “Camp, and the other events we run, tries to break through all that and give people ordinary experiences. Everyone deserves a vacation, and people look forward to camp all year.”
The camp has a semicircle of cabins, a swimming pool, a dining hall and activity cabin. It’s the summer camp experience, and there are dozens of people here to enjoy it. Mental health care providers break out their hidden talents, from baking to leading campfire sing-alongs, and patients have fun and see their camp friends again.
It’s not your usual mental health care setting, but there really isn’t a typical setting for patients of the Community Mental Health Program with its 10 different interdisciplinary teams using different models of care to help people when, where, and how they need it.
“People with long battles with mental illness, we know them. People with mental illness you see living on the street, we know them,” said Farrell. “People newly diagnosed, and people with intellectual disabilities and mental illness, we know them too.”
Because the program has different models of care, it can meet all of these people’s needs and help them live their best lives. They can have meaningful lives in their community because they have the support of community mental health teams around them.
Joan has been sick since she was a teenager. She used to have panic attacks eight hours a day, she said, and her illness became especially severe after her husband of 38 years passed away. She became an inpatient at The Royal for several months, but then was able to move back into the community where she continues to be supported by the Community Mental Health Program.
“When I come to camp, I can meditate and relax more. I can enjoy the sun, the company, the food. It’s nice to hear the crickets when I sleep at night,” said Joan. “I remember my husband.” It’s Joan’s fifth year at camp, and she drove up with her nurse, Trudy Kelly.
“Trudy helped me come out of my illness. Now, if I feel anxious I can work with the therapy she taught me in my mind. It prevents me from having panic attacks,” said Joan. “It was divine intervention that I met Trudy.”
“Or just a referral,” Kelly adds with a modest smile.
Barry, another client of the Community Mental Health Program, expresses his feelings about camp in poetry:
The Community Mental Health Program helps people make gains in many areas of their lives — whether that’s finding stable housing, building relationships, participating in meaningful activity, or pursuing school or work. These teams also massively reduce the number of days patients spend in the hospital.
For example, one of the program’s Assertive Community Treatment teams saw days in hospital drop among its clients from 12,195 the year before it started to 2260 in the year after.
“This isn’t unusual; this is typical,” said Robin Pow, director of patient care for the Community Mental Health Program. “The people we work with are still living with severe and persistent mental illness, but with our teams’ support they are making progress outside the hospital.”
Dr. Ashwin Ramasubbu is a fourth-year psychiatry resident doing a rotation in the Community Mental Health Program. “Community mental health has really opened my eyes to what we can do for people. It’s way more than I ever learned in medical school. If I’m prescribing a medication, that’s just one part of a treatment plan,” he said as he takes a break from working in the kitchen.
“I’ve never seen this level of advocacy in mental health before. People on these teams will do everything they can to keep clients well and out of hospital.”
Camp is part of the creative, holistic approach that the Community Mental Health Program takes to patient care. Because a lot of people living with severe and persistent mental illness are denied opportunities for weekends away, for inclusion, for recreation, the program builds them.
At the end of camp, mental health care providers in the kitchen wrap up care packages to send home with the campers. They’ll provide warm, nutritious food for days to come — a taste of camp that lingers.
Another year’s gone by. Back again, why? A good time that’s why. Familiar faces from years gone by Weather’s nice. What a slice. To be at the cabins again.