YOUTH CLINIC ON WHEELS
Mobile health unit first of its kind in Canada
In front of a youth shelter in Richmond Hill, a 40-foot bus idles quietly. Red, blue and yellow graffiti is scrawled across the sides.
The graphically appealing bus patiently waits for teens who, out of curiosity, might climb on board. The interior of the bus is cozy, like a camper van on holiday, with a banquette, a flat screen TV, snacks and drinks.
This bus is actually a youth walk-in clinic on wheels called MOBYSS, which stands for Mobile York South Simcoe, an innovative and unique outreach program launched by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) — in collaboration with Markham Stouffville Hospital. “It’s the first mobile initiative of its kind in Canada to deal with the mental, physical and sexual health of youth,” says CMHA’s program manager Pamela Wilansky.
Calvin Au greets the teens and makes them feel at ease. “My peer co-counsellor Robert Friedman and I try our best to be in the moment with the youth,” says Au, “and we have had great success building rapport with the teens by engaging in activities that are interesting to them such as playing basketball or sharing a meal at a shelter.”
In full privacy and confidentiality – and without an appointment or health card – teens have the option of being seen by the onboard nurse practitioner or mental health worker, or they can simply hang out with the peer counsellors. If it’s a lingering ear ache or birth control issue, the nurse can treat them in an enclosed medical examination room at the back of the bus. Or if an adolescent is experiencing anxiety or stress, the youth mental health worker will invite him or her to sit up front in the bus’s passenger seat, draw a privacy curtain, and casually inquire about his sleep habits or drug use – all in an effort to identify youth who may be at risk of self-harm or a mental illness such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
MOBYSS travels around the region, making about 12 stops a week at various teen hangouts such as malls, youth shelters, high schools, skateboarding parks and music festivals. On the road since May, MOBYSS is manned by CMHA-trained staff and financially supported by Markham Stouffville Hospital. The hospital’s foundation is providing the funds to keep MOBYSS operating over the next five years, made possible by a generous donation from Deborah and Luca Rotta-Loria, long-time supporters of the hospital’s mental health program. “MOBYSS is a very innovative, powerful and tangible example of how donor dollars can save lives,” says Suzette Strong, CEO, Markham Stouffville Hospital Foundation.
It is estimated that 1 in 5 Canadians suffer from a major mental illness, with a full 75 percent of cases originating in adolescence, says Dr. Rustom Sethna, chief of psychiatry at Markham Stouffville Hospital. Between the ages of 15 and 24 is the highest period of risk, says Dr. Sethna, and if these youth do not receive the care they need, their life path will be irrevocably altered, and they will more than likely suffer long-term disability.
According to the latest census (2006), it is estimated that out of the approximately 126,000 youth who live in York Region alone, more than 22,000 would be at risk. And yet, less than 5,000 would actually get the medical attention they need. MOBYSS aims to change the status quo.
“The bus is so friendly,” says Paul Cappuccio, director, mental health services and family medicine at Markham Stouffville Hospital, “that we’re banking on the teens choosing it to get the help they need, because they are not likely to walk into a hospital clinic to talk to an older guy like me.” Without support, Cappuccio says, these teens would likely withdraw, drop out of school and be at high risk for self-harm and suicide, the second leading cause of death in youth, after accidents.
In addition to funding, Markham Stouffville Hospital will support the MOBYSS team by offering diagnostic consults through the Ontario Telemedicine Network, a private medical channel. Hospital staff will offer guidance to the MOBYSS team to send a distressed teen to the nearest hospital with the best mental health resources, says Dr. Sethna.
MOBYSS will be fully connected through the internet and social media. Teens can download a mobile app on their smartphones that will provide scheduling, route information, GPS location and links to local supports and services. Teens can also use texting and social media such as Facebook and Twitter to contact the MOBYSS team.
MOBYSS hopes to achieve at least 500 app downloads and 2,000 followers on social media. The goal is to reach at least 10 youth a day in which 50 percent of those visit the walk-in youth clinic as their first interaction with the mental health sector.
Adds Dr. Sethna: “Our goal is to destigmatize mental illness through programs like MOBYSS, which provides a normalizing effect. We need to rebuild young lives affected by mental illness, with a view to protecting our future generations.”
This is the first in a series from Markham Stouffville Hospital. The next article appears Saturday, Nov. 28.