A hospital visit can be a daunting experience, especially when you’re alone. For young adults suffering a mental health crisis or struggling with substance use, that visit can be so frightening they avoid it until a trip to the emergency department is their only option to get medical attention.
For people who are struggling through some of the darkest periods of their lives, the help of an ally can turn an emergency department visit into a welcoming experience. That’s where Sinai Health’s RBC Pathway to Peers program comes in.
In partnership with Stella’s Place and a 10-year, $2 million commitment from RBC Foundation, Sinai Health’s RBC Pathway to Peers program pairs a peer support worker with an emergency department patient aged 16 to 29 years seeking care for mental health and/or substance use issues.
What makes the RBC Pathway to Peers support workers special is they have lived experience and can empathize with their patients. They know what it’s like to face substance use or have a mental health crisis, and it’s this kind of tailored care that makes RBC Pathway to Peers a program thousands of patients have received support from in their time of need.
Whether it’s in-person meetings or virtual consultations, this groundbreaking service has helped more than 2,500 young adults face the challenges of a global health crisis with expert guidance and compassionate care.
When RBC Pathway to Peers launched in May of 2020, we were in the early grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, with very little available information about transmission, treatment, and vaccines. Despite these challenges, the RBC Pathway to Peers team has expertly adapted to changing restrictions and lockdown measures. The program defied the odds, and today is a success story that’s grabbing the attention of other hospitals and health care institutions.
Christine Bradshaw is an emergency department social worker, and project manager of RBC Pathway to Peers. She says she couldn’t be more proud of how well her team has expanded from providing one-on-one care in the Mount Sinai emergency department to offering that same level of personalized service to young adults who can’t be there in person due to COVID-19, or other reasons. “We’ve always offered phone call follow-ups to patients who arrive at our emergency department, but now we’re offering phone consultations to support to people we haven’t even seen”, says Bradshaw. “The conversation can be anything from getting groceries delivered to their home to coping with being inside with their families all day, every day.”
Bradshaw says the feedback has been tremendously positive. “Generally, people are pleasantly surprised when offered this opportunity. People say, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re going to care for me when I’m not there?’”
Jordyn Ethier joined the RBC Pathway to Peers team in May of 2021. She has lived through the experience of what her patients are facing every day. It’s that level of understanding that makes someone like Ethier the perfect peer support worker to help young people in need get to a place of healing and recovery.
“The most rewarding part of my work is being able to relate to patients’ experiences because we come from that lived experience,” Ethier says. “Telling them we’ve been there too, that recovery is still possible, and how the strategies we offer might work for them.”
While the program has already helped thousands of young people, Ethier has a message for young patients who are unfamiliar with what RBC Pathway to Peers offers. “I want people to know how much direct value there is by working with people with a similar lived experience,” says Ethier. “The team is so open-minded and judgement-aware. It’s a low-barrier service, they don’t even need a health card to access it!”
When RBC Pathway to Peers launched, it was believed to be the first-of-its-kind in Ontario. Now, Bradshaw says other hospitals and institutions are getting on board with the idea. “We have been presenting virtually at several conferences, explaining what it’s like to break down stigma and barriers. We want to be a leader with that,” says Bradshaw. “After each conference, we get a handful of people wanting to meet and talk about how to implement something similar in their own institution. Understanding how challenging the process can be, we want to share our knowledge and training tools with other hospitals who want to start something similar for their patients.”
Arguably, the best indication of just how successful RBC Pathway to Peers is comes from the patients themselves. “During my interactions with a patient experiencing a crisis or distress, many of them ask how they, too, can become a peer support worker,” says Ethier. “Even during some of the scariest moments of their lives, patients are still recognizing how this program fosters hope.”
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