When Dylan Devenis walked into the Camrose Open Door Association three months ago, it was on advice from his sister, who had taken in the then 17-year-old fresh evictee.

You can get anything you need here, he remembers her telling him.

The first person he saw greeted him with a “hey.” With minutes, Devenis was speaking to a youth worker about his housing situation. By the end of the day, he had received the regular testosterone shot that’s needed to transition.

He describes the support as instant and amazing.

“Them knowing I was trans male and going, ‘We have doctors here that can help you,”… it was mind blowing,” Devenis said.

“I walked in, got help right away.”

Province testing mental health youth ‘hubs’

The Camrose Open Door Association is a regional facility that provides supports to teens and young adults. It expanded its services in 2017 when the Camrose Primary Care Network received a $300,000 grant from the provincial government for a first-of-its-kind youth hub pilot project.

The pilot, hosted by the Open Door, is a test of a service model called “integrated hubs”—essentially, a single location that connects youth in need with health, professional and educational resources.

And, in the case of the Camrose Open Door, a friendly support dog named Moose.

Provincial funding has finally allowed the Open Door to “completely and totally wrap around the kids and give them absolutely everything they need,” described its executive director, Jessica Hutton.

Between November 2017 and December 2018, hub staff helped 361 people between the ages of 11 and 24 find supportive housing, create résumés, seek addiction help, pursue a high school diploma—and transition to adulthood in a number of other ways.  

To Hutton, 361 youth in need seems high, but the number appears to be falling.

“We’re seeing them less and less and less through the doors, and that’s telling us that they don’t need us anymore,” she said.

The success, Hutton believes, is in the collaborative approach by the Camrose community. Youth can self-refer to the hub, but they can also be referred by family, physicians and other healthcare or community workers. When the Open Door is unable to provide aid on site, it connects young people with professionals through the Camrose Primary Care Network.

“We’re no longer telling them that they have to wait long periods of time,” Hutton said.

“When somebody is suicidal, or somebody is actively using, seconds count. And when you can respond with those seconds, you can save lives.”

Mental health hubs needed elsewhere in Alberta

The parents of a 31-year-old who died by suicide wonder if hubs like the Open Door could act as a method of early intervention.

As Kim Titus' son had grown older, Braden experienced periods he described as “funks.” In 2015, he and his mom went to their family doctor.  

After telling the physician he had considered suicide and was interested in speaking to a therapist, Braden was again prescribed medication and put on a three-week waitlist for a counsellor.

“I thought because he had his mom, his dad and his dog, that three weeks didn’t sound too unreasonable, until we found out in the most horrific way that it turned out to be,” Titus said.

Braden’s parents have since launched a foundation that advocates for better access to mental health care, and helped create the Airdrie Mental Health Task Force, which is working to bring a youth hub to Airdrie.

“To a young person here, they may not have the awareness of where these services are available,” said Airdrie and Area Health Co-op President, Mark Seland.

“By coordinating in this way, and especially for the people of our future, the young people in this community, I think it could go a long way.”

The Tituses don’t blame their doctor, but see a system that provides poor access to medical care and too little education for frontline workers of a “tsunami.”

In 2017-2018, Alberta Health Services saw 2,303 minors hospitalized for primary substance abuse or a mental health-related diagnosis.

AHS counted nearly 700 more discharges, accounting for patients who were hospitalized several times within the year.

“We need a system that responds to the needs of the people,” Titus told CTV News.

Seeking help in Alberta

The provincial government said it is working to establish hubs throughout Alberta, and that an update on these efforts would be made in the near future.

In the meantime, hubs in Spruce Grove and Fort Saskatchewan have each received $75,000 in start-up funding from the province.

The Camrose hub is accessible via the Camrose Open Door Association, located at Gateway Centre at 4825 51 Street, or by calling or texting its 24-hour hotline at 780-679-HELP (4357).

The Tituses are working to erase the stigma of mental illness through the Thumbs Up Foundation, named in memory of Braden.

A list of national and provincial helplines can be found here.

With files from Carmen Leibel