Finding Support for Families

By Dr. Anthony Levitt

In general, the adult system of mental health and addictions care is set up for motivated individuals who identify that they have a concern and wish to find help. Unfortunately, mental illness and addictions themselves prevent people from realizing they have a health concern or rob them of the motivation to do something about it. For youth, there is the additional factor of not being completely comfortable, or trusting, or understanding of what the health system can offer. Therefore, it often falls to families to be the motivating agents that help young people look for care. 

Families are often the “history keepers” and can provide important longitudinal information for health care professionals. They are also able to speak to the impact of the youth’s symptoms on family life, social/occupational and educational activities. And still families find it very difficult to find a way to navigate the system for their child with a mental health and or addiction.

In response to the growing and unmet needs of families, several navigation services have opened throughout North America and beyond. There are three kinds:

Websites and lists. There are several helpful websites that give a sense of what services are out there. They don’t necessarily help the family to select the best match and they don’t necessarily help make the connection with the services, but they are a valuable starting place. Examples include in Canada, and in the US.

Telephone or email navigation services run by families with lived experience. These services provide guidance from people who have “been in the trenches” and can provide support and guidance to families who feel lost in the system or unsure of how to even enter the system for their youth. Examples in Canada include FORCE in Vancouver at, and is a clearing house for peer and self support in the United States.

Telephone/email or in-person navigation services run by professionals and clinicians. These services are similar to the peer support services, but have a clinically trained staff with a more intimate knowledge and connection with the health care system who can make direct referrals and connections with services. Examples are the Family Navigation Project in Ontario, and Therapeutic Placement Specialists or Educational Consultants in the US.

Families struggle, sometimes unnecessarily, to find resources for their youth with major mental illness and/or addictions. There are resources out there that can help navigate through the complex and sometimes disorganized system. Keep looking. There are trustworthy organizations and groups who can help and make a life-saving difference.

Dr. Anthony LevittDr. Levitt is Research Director in the Department of Psychiatry at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, and Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. He specializes in the management of treatment resistant depression and bipolar disorder, and is a strong advocate for enhancing patient and family access to, and navigation of, the mental health system. 

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