IWK's mental health centre remodelled into 'adolescent village'

Teenagers at the IWK’s newest facility have some time every day when they can sneak away to a sunny, orange-painted room, as long as they mind the computer printouts on the walls.

Facility first opened in 2010, but has been renovated piece by piece since then

Teenagers at the IWK’s newest facility have some time every day when they can sneak away to a sunny, orange-painted room, as long as they mind the computer printouts on the walls.

“Please No Drum Use Until 5pm,” says one.

“No weightlifting at Break Time!!!!!!!” says another.

Program manager Maureen Brennan gestures left and right as she shows off the room: one corner has ping-pong and pool tables, another has exercise machines and free weights, and off to the side is a separate music room full of drums, guitars and a keyboard.

The mental health inpatient centre, in a building on Craigmore Drive in Halifax just off Joseph Howe Drive, first opened in late 2010. However, since then the hospital has been renovating it piece by piece into “almost like an adolescent village,” says Brennan.

Building designed to help improve mental health treatment

Focus groups with IWK patients and their families helped set the design, as well as research on how buildings can improve mental health treatment.

“You’ll see a lot of dimmer switches on it. You’ll see, as much as possible, windows,” said Brennan.

Smaller rooms for individual or family therapy are furnished more like living rooms than hospital rooms.

The centre’s activities are also meant to mimic and integrate with the outside world, hence the crowded rec room, says Brennan.

Many of the roughly 50 patients there at any given time are “disenfranchised” and might not have had opportunities to learn music, sports, gardening or other activities at home, she said.

The goal is “exposing them to leisure that might be a natural hook that they can bring back to the community,” she said.

In addition to academic classes, therapy and organized recreation sessions, patients also learn life skills like budgeting and career planning.

The centre adds four inpatient beds to the IWK’s previous capacity and several spots for outpatients, and it can treat more than 250 patients, all aged 13 to 19, per year.

A chance for 'environmental intervention'

The main IWK building’s mental health beds are used for emergency, life-threatening cases, but the Craigmore building is geared towards rehabilitation. Its patients’ serious problems, from addiction to severe anxiety, haven’t improved with any other treatment.

Mental health wisdom holds that children should keep living at home whenever possible, but when they can’t, it can be a chance for “environmental intervention,” said Brennan.

Some of the activities were available at the old IWK treatment centres, but they were dispersed at different sites. With the Craigmore building, staff went the “beg-borrow” route to fill it.

Musical instruments were provided by Long & McQuade, sports equipment was funded through the Canadian Tire Jumpstart program, and a GoodLife Fitness trainer comes in to work with patients.

IWK volunteers also offer something very personal. Each of the 20 inpatient beds is spread with a homemade quilt when a new patient arrives. The quilt-makers, often elderly women, working alone or in quilting bees across the province, include letters to the young recipient with stories about their own loved ones’ hard times, including struggles with mental health and addiction.

Each patient can take the quilt home and he or she is asked to write a letter back to the quilters.

'Not an institutional feel'

One parent who visited the building in the fall, not long after all the renovations were finished, said she liked the look of the classrooms and games rooms.

“The facility itself seemed relatively upbeat and not an institutional feel to it, really,” said Vicky Morinville, who was seeking treatment for her 13-year-old daughter.

Her daughter also liked the building, but she was turned down for treatment there because her problems weren’t a good fit with the program.

Morinville says the wait time to speak to IWK mental health staff has noticeably improved in the past couple of years, but there are still gaps in service.

The rate of referrals to the centre has been steady over the last few years, though there are spikes at certain times of the year, said IWK manager Lyn Frankton.

When patients finish their two or three months at the Craigmore centre, its final offering is staying in touch for up to four months with the patient and whoever is treating him or her at home, making sure the patterns picked up in the “village” are sticking.

“It’s almost like a relay race in that you hand that baton and run with them for a while,” said Brennan.

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