The Ernest C. Manning Innovation Awards: The Strongest Families Institute

Tackling the challenge of providing mental health care from a distance

Encana Principal Award: $100,000

Dr. Patricia Lingley-Pottie & Dr. Patrick McGrath OC FRSC, FCAHS
The Strongest Families Institute
Halifax, Nova Scotia

Patrick McGrath admits he’s a slow learner.

As a child psychologist for more than 25 years, McGrath has treated countless kids with behavioral problems, primarily anxiety and those who are disruptive or hyperactive. Often, he’d see families that had waited a year or more to receive care. But even after they started therapy and began making improvement, they would eventually stop coming. It took McGrath a long time to figure out why.

“I naively thought that they just weren’t motivated,” he says. “But it dawned on me that the system was the problem and we needed a better system to deliver care.”

In addition to wait times, the problem with the system, he says, is that it requires patients to attend doctor’s appointments during business hours. That’s challenging for working parents, who have to take time off to get there. Factor in the costs of travel, childcare and lost wages and receiving care is not only inconvenient, it’s expensive. But the cost of not dealing with these issues can mean more serious mental health problems later in life, says McGrath.

Over a ten-year period, he began looking at providing mental health care from a distance as an alternative to traditional methods, conducting pilot projects and winning research grants. In March 2012, along with his business partner Patricia Lingley-Pottie, a nurse scientist, he launched the Strongest Families Institute. A non-profit organization based out of Halifax, the Institute provides families facing mental health crises with 12-week programs all administered through handbooks, audiovisual material and a website. Coaches who are not trained doctors but “possess empathy and good communication skills” provide over-the-phone assistance once a week.


View profiles of fellow Ernest C. Manning Innovation Award winners:

Dr. Henry Luo, AntiShock™ Technology (David E. Mitchell Award of Distinction)

Dan Eisenhardt & Hamid Abdollahi, Heads-up Display (Ernest C. Manning Innovation Award)

Ifor Davies, Zafety Lug Lock (Ernest C. Manning Innovation Award)

“The parents and the kids develop a very close relationship with their phone coach even though they’ve never met,” says McGrath.

Programs are meant to offer parents new tools for helping their kids, some that are counterintuitive, says McGrath. For example, instead of wanting to protect a child with social anxiety, it’s better to help them confront their fears.

Although some of his medical colleagues were skeptical of his idea at first, mainly because a psychologist doesn’t oversee the patients, McGrath says early feedback has been positive with 93 per cent of families describing their experience as excellent or very good. The Institute forms contracts with health care providers, mostly in Nova Scotia right now, but jurisdictions in Ontario, Alberta and B.C. have also signed up. Last year, it treated 1,000 kids and is currently working on programs to address fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and post-partum depression.

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