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Connecting Body and Mind

Network, Spring/Summer 2006

In spring 2005, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) launched a national awareness campaign, “Practice Mind + Body Fitness,” to highlight the connection between physical and mental health and the need to take care of both. To mark Mental Health Week 2006, celebrated during the first week of May, CMHA is continuing the theme by encouraging people to take control of their health and take care of their mind.

Increasingly, CMHA branches in Ontario have been embracing the mind/body connection through a variety of innovative initiatives, ranging from public awareness programs through to the human resource policy level, client programming and new partnerships.

Raising Awareness…

CMHA Thunder Bay Branch, along with several other mental health agencies, began its mind/body public awareness program in conjunction with the national initiative in 2005. “As local agencies we came together to plan and host over 20 workshops that were offered throughout the whole community. The workshops were all designed to focus on enhancing both physical and mental wellness and stressed the connection between the two,” explains Joanne Books, education and training coordinator.

In 2006, the Mental Health Week event is growing. CMHA Thunder Bay is again partnering with health agencies, athletic clubs and businesses that promote the body/mind connection. Joanne is pleased to report that “this project helped us form partnerships with a diverse group of community businesses that are now working with us to promote positive mental health as well as physical health.” Activities planned for this year will range from workshops on mindfulness and meditation to financial fitness. A 16-page program with details of all events will accompany the local newspaper to 43,000 homes in the community.

Last year’s event was a big hit. “People loved the variety of the workshops offered,” says Joanne. “We really see the need for this type of awareness event. We’re living in a time when most of us are pretty stressed — with our work culture and our family lives — so taking time out for ourselves is becoming more and more important to people, and I really think they see the need for this.”

Working from the inside out…

Practicing what it preaches, CMHA Peel Branch initiated an employee wellness program that is now in its third year of operation. According to Executive Director Sandy Milakovic, “We have a lot of consumers on our staff and we’ve seen over the years the impact of mental health on physical health and vice versa. So, we decided that for all of our staff it would be a good business practice to encourage them to think about what they’re doing to maintain their physical health.”

While consulting with staff about possible routes to better health, the branch recognized that the financial costs attached to many health promoting services and activities could well be a barrier to change. So, in order to “walk the talk,” CMHA Peel instituted a benefit for each staff member — part-time included — of $250 yearly toward the purchase of health-promoting goods or services.

Staff are required to apply for these monies and to explain how their mental health will benefit. But the list of possibilities is long, varied and evolving, with examples ranging from yoga through painting, to gym memberships, reflexology and hobby materials.

People are very pleased with this policy. “It makes a big difference in terms of our own mental health in the workplace and how we’re able to go about doing our jobs on a day-to-day basis,” notes Sandy. “And there’s a direct payoff to the clients that we serve because staff are feeling less stress and are able to get some additional support for leading a healthy lifestyle. It’s not just about how they approach their job, it’s that they believe in it, and they’ll be passing the message along to clients.”

Healthy bodies, healthy minds…

Several CMHA branches in Ontario are developing or expanding the health promotion and prevention services available to their clients with serious mental illness. Sault Ste. Marie and SDG Prescott-Russell branches offer health and fitness programs that include health education, nutrition, physical activity and smoking cessation. In both cases, these programs grew out of branch involvement with local chronic illness coalitions.

Drawing on the expertise and support of the Eastern Ontario Health Unit and the Healthy Rhythm Coalition, SDG Prescott-Russell developed their Focus on Fitness program in 2004 to promote the physical and mental well-being of their clientele. The program consists of three components: The Walking Club offers short and longer walking circuits, aqua-fitness classes, training in a gym, yoga classes, and other opportunities to experiment with physical activity. Healthy Living provides educational sessions on nutrition, stress management, Tai Chi, and other topics. And Focus on Fitness clients participate in the annual Mental Health Awareness Walk, a community event that takes place during Mental Health Awareness Week.

In Sault Ste. Marie, the Families in Training (FIT) program was initially designed as a heart health initiative for many communities. The four-session program consists of Active Living, Smoke-Free Living, Healthy Eating and Stress-Free Living. As far as client feedback goes, according to Mental Health Worker Marilou Scali, “They’re really interested in the Healthy Eating part of it, because quite a few of them realize they’ve gained many pounds since they went on medication. So they want to know how to eat right, how to eat right on a budget, how to cook, how to grocery shop, what to look for, how to read the labels… They want to know all of that. So there’s a really good response to anything we do with food.”

In the case of CMHA Cochrane-Timiskaming Branch, their Primary Care Pilot Project allowed for the development and delivery of a healthy lifestyle program. “The people that CMHA serves all suffer from mental illnesses,” explains Lynn Lamarche, the nurse who delivered the program. “As part of the primary care focus on wellness, we addressed some of their physical health needs as a way to also improve their mental health. The Healthy Lifestyles Program Group ran for two hours a week for two months. The first hour of each meeting consisted of teaching relaxation techniques, coping with anxiety, and self-care (nutrition, sleep, etc.).”

“For the second half of the meeting,” continues Lamarche, “a personal trainer and mental health worker with CMHA, Frankie O’Connor, offered the participants physical exercises tailored to address the specific symptoms of their mental illnesses. For example, calming exercises like yoga for clients suffering from bipolar disorder, and higher impact aerobic exercises for depression. We had an evaluation at the end and the feedback was excellent.” Cochrane-Timiskaming Branch has plans for the program to run again.

All in the Family…

Meeting the mental and physical health care needs of people with mental illness is much easier and more effective when both services can be provided in the same location. A number of CMHA branches in Ontario are taking the collaborative approach by bringing their community mental health expertise to Family Health Teams (FHTs).

The Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care has so far approved applications for 150 FHTs in Ontario. The Leamington and Area Family Health Team will be one of the first in the province to open its doors, and CMHA Windsor-Essex County Branch is on board as a partner. Other CMHA branches with a Family Health Team connection include Barrie-Simcoe, Brant County, Durham Region, Halton Region, and Peel. Those partnerships vary from branch to branch, and may include sitting as a member of the community advisory board, donating office space, and providing mental health staff.

“In Barrie we have about 70 family doctors who’ve been working as part of a family health network, and it’s likely that 60 or so will sign up to be part of the FHT,” says Nancy Roxborough, executive director of CMHA Barrie-Simcoe Branch. Barrie has been approved for a team and they’re in the process of preparing their business plan.

“I think the number one issue that doctors are struggling with,” Roxborough continues, “is how best to provide care to their patients who have mental health needs or have family members with mental health issues. Physicians themselves have identified this as one of their greatest needs. So the plan will be to eventually have 15 mental health allied health professionals working directly with the family doctors, doing assessments and providing treatment to those clients in need.”

Roxborough anticipates that the work will focus mainly on those with mental illness of moderate severity. While much of the CMHA branch funding provides for the support and treatment of people with serious mental illness, she explains that “many physicians struggle with the client group that may be dealing with various life crises or may experience anxiety, depression and mood disorders.”

“But,” she adds, “we also hope to identify early on those persons who may be exhibiting symptoms of first-episode psychosis. I think those two aspects will be critical. And there’ll also be a psychiatrist available as needed.”

“Ultimately, the hope is that if doctors do not need to spend as much time dealing with mental health issues, then there’ll be some space available for other people in their patient load, because we have about 40,000 people in Barrie who are without a family doctor. So there is that hope, that these changes will help to improve capacity for the FHT to pick up some new patients.”

“It’s really exciting,” concludes Roxborough. “I think I’ve enjoyed this community development process more than any other. The doctors are very, very passionate about this process and they’ve put a lot of effort into this. I’m sure it will be a huge success. And I’m sure the story is much the same throughout the province.”