Helen Nguyen, RSW, Scarborough Centre for Healthy Communities

Scarborough Health Network (SHN) is proud to join organizations across the country in recognizing Canadian Mental Health Week from May 1-7.

Each year, one in five Canadians experience a mental illness or need mental health support. With SHN’s recent announcement on the upcoming launch of our new Community Mental Health Centre, this year for Mental Health Week, we are shining a light on mental health care in the community. We spoke with providers, partners and patrons from SHN and across Scarborough to discuss the many facets of community-based mental health care and services. They each brought their own lens and perspectives that we are proud to share in our three-part Q&A series.

Meet Helen Nguyen, a registered social worker with Scarborough Centre for Healthy Communities (SCHC) – one of SHN’s Scarborough Ontario Health Team partners. During Helen’s ten-year career, she has worked with countless patients to help them develop skills and resources to function well in society, and has played the integral role of supporting patients in their mental health care journey. From her experiences providing frontline care in the community, she has seen the significant impacts that social determinants of health have on a person’s overall well-being, and how medical conditions, if left untreated, can manifest as mental health issues.

What does your role look like when it comes to supporting mental health care in the community?

As a social worker and therapist, I provide primary healthcare services that promote social change, problem-solving in relationships, and empowerment to enhance well-being. Specifically, I provide psychotherapy to individuals and groups in the treatment and/or clinical management of moderate to severe/chronic depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In addition, I am also a Mental Health Coordinator through the Scarborough Seamless Care Optimizing Patient Experience (SCOPE) program, which is partnership between SCHC and SHN. In this role, I support our community based primary care providers (PCPs) in the treatment of mental health issues. This includes:

  • Formulating service recommendations or treatment plans,
  • Systems navigation, and
  • Direct patient assessment and treatment that may consist of one-on-one counseling and/or case management — with a strong emphasis on co-management with the PCP and cross-community agencies for the purpose of facilitating changes.

Why is mental health important to address in our Scarborough community?

Scarborough is a shining beacon of diversity, representing one of most wonderfully multicultural communities within the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), and Canada overall. 

When it comes to mental health though, we must understand the stigma that is linked to it. In many cultures, mental health can be a very private matter, and one that is kept at home. Due to social and cultural stigma around mental health, plus a fear of potential or further discrimination in their new home country, many immigrant individuals and families who suffer from some form of mental health issue may try to deal with it all on their own. 

Addressing mental health by providing educational information and normalizing experiences are crucial steps toward building a healthy community where everyone feels they belong and are understood. 

I am Vietnamese. In my mother tongue, mental health directly translates to “insanity.”  I have had family members and friends (or their families) who have experienced depression, anxiety disorder or addiction issues, and don’t want others to know about their struggles with mental health for fear of judgement or backlash. Without issues being acknowledged and addressed, this can lead to conditions getting worse.  

Why do you think there’s been an increase in demand for mental health services in our community? 

There are many reasons why we have seen an increase in the need for mental health services in our community, including:

  • Insufficient supportive/social housing;
  • Inadequate social/recreational activities for particular groups (e.g. homeless populations were relocated from downtown to various pockets in Scarborough neighborhoods during the pandemic);
  • Lack of suitable employment opportunities for youth and individuals with some mental health challenges; and
  • An increase in socially disadvantaged groups, such as youth (international students), the elderly, and new Canadians.

How would it make patients’ lives easier to have services in one central, community location?

The new Community Mental Health Centre that SHN is developing will have many benefits for patients and clients in Scarborough. Of course, everything becomes more accessible and awareness of various supports increases with them all being housed in a single place. Also with one location, patients may be able to make fewer trips to access multiple services, which can save on costs and time. Furthermore, the Centre addresses intersectionality. We know that people experiencing mental health issues often also are impacted by other social determinants of health, such as financial hardship and/or lack of social fabric. The new Community Mental Health Centre improves access for patients and clients to a larger cross-section of care and support they need by creating a collaborative space where services are not siloed.

Why is it important that SHN and SCHC partner to help our community with their mental health needs?

We are stronger, together. Through this partnership, we can provide more integrated services that are user-centered and community-needs driven. Together, we are creating comprehensive and wraparound care.