Mother of teen 'saved' by Douglas Hospital DBT program urges health minister to bring it back

"You can't cut programs to young adults. You just can't," says Perla Muyal, whose daughter Aviva credits the Douglas Hospital's dialectical behaviour group therapy program for turning her life around.

'It saved my life' says Aviva Penny of group therapy program for depressed, suicidal teens

Aviva Penny, soon to turn 18, now dances with a hip-hop troupe. (submitted by Aviva Penny)

Perla Muyal was horrified when she heard the Douglas Hospital had suspended a treatment program that helps teens cope with serious mental health problems, including emotional instability, anxiety, depression and self-harming. 

A few years ago, her daughter, Aviva Penny, went through the program, known as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Muyal says it taught them skills they are still using to this day.

"It helped our family kind of survive a really difficult time in our lives," said Muyal.

Penny says she started to self-harm and feel suicidal after her older brother was diagnosed with cancer.

"I kind of had to be strong for everybody because there was so much stuff going on," recalled Penny. "As soon as he was in remission, I think I just sort of let myself go."

Aviva Penny (left) and her mother Perla Muyal credit the Douglas Hospital's DBT program with saving Penny's life. (submitted by Perla Muyal)

Penny, who turns 18 next month, said the DBT program completely changed the way she thought and related to others.

Before the program, she said she'd fly off the handle over a perceived insult or misunderstanding. She'd blame others for how she felt.

Now, when she feels herself getting riled up, she can step back and deal with it when she's feeling calmer, Penny said.  

She's still in therapy and admits that nothing is a magical solution, but the DBT program helped her understand much more clearly what she couldn't handle and how to ask for help.

"It saved my life," said Penny, who now dances competitively in a hip-hop troupe.

Parents helped, too

The DBT program that was offered at the Douglas used a combination of individual, group and family therapy to teach teens how to make calm, sound decisions and express themselves in a healthy way. 

Parents were also included in the group therapy and taught skills to help them better understand and support their children, some of whom are acting out through self-harm, drinking or doing drugs.

"The parents are kind of freaking out, because we don't have the skills to deal with these dramatic events in our children's lives, right?" said Muyal, recalling how she felt at the beginning of the therapy.

"We all want them to be happy, well-adjusted kids, and we have kids that are out of control."

Our tax dollars have to go to being supportive of young adults who are in crisis.- Perla Muyal, mother of teen

The regional health agency that administers the Douglas Hospital, the ​CIUSSS de l'Ouest-de-l'Île-de-Montréal, says it put the program on hold for a year, starting last April, to investigate more "cost-effective" options.  

Individual and family DBT services are still available, but group therapy is no longer being offered.

"I understand it's costly, and honestly, I don't care," said Muyal. "Our tax dollars have to go to being supportive of young adults who are in crisis."

Other families whose children have also been through the program agree.

One mother, who asked to remain anonymous, contacted CBC Montreal Investigates to say she wasn't sure her daughter would still be alive if not for the help she received at the Douglas.

"You cannot 'pause' teenagers' desperation, you cannot 'pause' their suicidal tendencies for a year, you just can't," another mother told CBC.

Society is letting these children down, she said, by suspending one of the most "precious, effective tools" available to help teenagers get their lives back together.

Up to CIUSSS, not health minister

Given the heightened awareness of youth suicide, Health Minister Gaetan Barrette was asked this week if he'd intervene in the decision to put the program on hold.

He said he was unaware of the specific program and wouldn't comment. But a spokesperson for the minister told CBC, that it's up to the regional health agency's to decide what services to provide.

Not good enough says Muyal.

"You can't cut programs [for] young adults, you just can't," said Muyal, who knows many families can't afford to pay for private therapy.

"We're cutting, cutting, cutting, cutting, but oh, let them decide how to cut so I have nothing to do with this, I'm washing my hands of it," said Muyal.

Ultimately, Muyal says, the health minister is holding the purse strings and needs to step in.

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About the Author

Leah Hendry is a TV, radio and online journalist with CBC Montreal Investigates. Contact her via our confidential tipline: 514-597-5155 or on email at