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Making her mark

William Cheng holds up a wine glass while seated at a dinner table
Sunnybrook’s Youth Advocate with Lived Experience is taking the Family Navigation Project’s collaboration with young people to the next level

Thalia Phi is making her mark at Sunnybrook’s Family Navigation Project (FNP).

The 23-year-old is the Youth Advocate with Lived Experience, the first role of its kind in any health-care navigation service. The role was recommended by Sunnybrook’s first-ever Youth Advisory Council, recognizing a need for peer support to enhance navigation of the mental health and addiction system.

Here, Thalia takes a moment to reflect on her journey into this role and to look ahead at what’s next for FNP and its bold new Youth Engagement Strategy.

Opening new doors

Thalia recalls when she first realized she needed mental health support. She was 15 and living on her own – and the wait for care was long, confusing and frustrating.

Years later, after learning about FNP, Thalia imagined the difference it might have made for her.

Had navigation been a possibility for me, it would have alleviated a lot of unnecessary stress,” says Thalia.

Funded entirely by Sunnybrook’s donor community, FNP is the first and largest navigation program of its kind in Canada. The free phone and email service connects youth (aged 13 to 26) and their families living across the Greater Toronto Area to the most appropriate mental health and/or addiction services.

With knowledge of more than 1,100 treatment providers, centres and programs in Ontario, FNP tailors an individual navigation plan to each youth and family based on their needs.

“Increasing access to care requires a great deal of knowledge and understanding – not only of the mental health and addiction system, but also of the youth themselves,” says Dr. Anthony Levitt, Chief of the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Program, and founder and medical director of FNP. “What makes FNP so special is the nuances that come from the lived experiences within our program, so we can take a personalized approach and recommend sequencing of care that best addresses the needs of youth and their families at every step in their navigation journey.”

Thalia holding a photo of herself at age 15
Thalia holding a photo of herself at age 15.

Recognizing a need for youth engagement

FNP’s model was created and developed with instrumental support from its Family Advisory Council. As FNP evolved, so too did the need for a comprehensive Youth Engagement Strategy.

FNP is realizing its bold new Youth Engagement Strategy with Sunnybrook’s first-ever Youth Advisory Council and the Youth Advocate with Lived Experience, made possible thanks to the Ontario Brain Institute and generous leadership investment from the Slaight Family Foundation.

“The Youth Advisory Council and the Youth Advocate with Lived Experience are two ways we are elevating our relationship-based navigation,” says Dr. Levitt.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of clients who reached out to FNP were parents or caregivers of youth. Today, the number of youth reaching out directly to FNP has more than doubled – and 85 per cent are first-time users.

“FNP navigates for youth. Youth are at the centre of it all, so it’s important we have that mindset and voice,” Thalia says, adding that her role represents an important shift in focus for the program.

Creating hope

Thalia has a seat at the table in FNP’s day-to-day operations, providing lived-experience insights on everything from internal navigation team meetings to building connections to youth-friendly service options. She also plays an active role in engaging youth with one-on-one support.

When FNP introduced this youth-peer support role in 2022 to enhance its navigation services, Thalia began to provide outreach to youth clients who were eager to talk to someone their own age and who understood what they were going through. “This role also helps youth understand – in relatable terms – how access and transitions work through the mental health and addiction system and how to enhance self-care during the process,” says Dr. Levitt. “Importantly, it’s also about providing hope to our youth clients.”

In the first six months, Thalia connected with 18 youth in need of peer support during their navigation journey.

“I start with my experience, so they know this is a relationship on an equal footing and then offer them a chance to tell their story,” says Thalia. “They choose what to share, and there’s never an expectation. I’ll meet them where they’re at. I try my best to be real, honest and vulnerable.”

Kardinal Offishall and guests
Thalia now plays an active role on the Family Navigation Team, engaging with youth with
one-on-one support.

For some youth, the hour-long introductory call is all they need to continue their navigation journey with their FNP navigator. Others reach out to Thalia several times a week. She’s also available to join youth in their calls with their FNP navigator.

With each connection, Thalia is reminded of how FNP could have made a difference in her own life. “For all of us, just hearing that we’re not alone is impactful.”