Admitted to The Ottawa Hospital in 2017, Anita Descheneau had feelings of hopelessness. For years, dating back to her teens, Anita was seeking help. That help included many years searching for assistance with other healthcare providers, for what she describes as mental and emotional distress — yet she felt left without a clear diagnosis or treatment roadmap.

The mother of four recalls dark times that winter. On the outside, things may have appeared fine. She was physically healthy, exercising, and had simplified her life. Yet despite feeling as if she was doing everything right, she was spiraling downward. By February, Anita arrived at our Emergency Department, and on Family Day weekend she was admitted overnight. Then in March, she was admitted to our acute Mental Health Unit, where she received care for several weeks. “I was in a state of suicidality,” recalls Anita.

“When I came to the hospital, I could not explain how I was feeling at all. Now, after four years, I can articulate how I’m feeling after an investment of huge amounts of individual and group therapy.”

– Anita Descheneau

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, and then later also with major depressive disorder, Anita started getting answers to the questions she has had for decades about her mental health. She remembers meeting psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Saul and the confidence he instilled in her — hope that she could get better. “Dr. Saul has been extremely supportive and committed to helping me get well again and to stay out of the hospital. He listens very thoughtfully, continues to encourage, validates me, and gently offers insight,” says Anita.

Anita Descheneau
Anita Descheneau

Today, Anita continues to receive care from our mental health team through different outpatient programs. Looking back, she realizes how far she’s come. “When I came to the hospital, I could not explain how I was feeling at all. Now, after four years, I can articulate how I’m feeling after an investment of huge amounts of individual and group therapy. That says something about the time that they have invested into my life, and that’s something that I’m very grateful for.”

“In my experience, the DBT approach is unique in its ability to validate our patients’ experiences and emotional responses, while also helping them to learn new ways to respond to their challenges.”

– Vicki Larsen

The Ottawa Hospital’s Mental Health program provides early diagnosis and treatment of severe mental illness. We currently have 96 beds for those patients and our hospital is often the first place those experiencing a mental health crisis will turn to for acute care. Group therapies like the Working with Emotion group and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy Skills Group (DBT) provided Anita with the tools and skills she needs each day. Run by psychiatrist, Dr. Christine Dickson, and social worker, Vicki Larsen, DBT and related therapies provide psychological tools in a group setting, including mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) concepts. This helps manage strong emotions, cope with suicidal impulses, navigate times of crisis, handle the complexities of relationships, and manage feelings of emptiness or an unstable sense of self.

“In my experience, the DBT approach is unique in its ability to validate our patients’ experiences and emotional responses, while also helping them to learn new ways to respond to their challenges. These skills allow them to be more grounded, more confident, and more able to work towards the goals that are important to them,” explains Vicki. “I have definitely seen this kind of growth in Anita; it has been a pleasure to work with someone who does her very best to use the skills that she has learned in DBT.”

Anita Descheneau sought assistance at The Ottawa Hospital for her mental health.

“Acknowledging that I know they are truly helping me and how immensely grateful I am, was and is highly important to me.”

– Anita Descheneau

Anita confirms she’s experienced those kinds of results herself. “The DBT groups helped me learn skills and keep using them in the future.” She has learned skills to not only take care of herself, but also to be the mother and wife she wants to be for her four children and husband back home.

Grateful for the exceptional treatment she received, Anita wanted to say thank you to those who played a key role in helping her on her journey. She did so through our Gratitude Award Program — donating in honour of Dr. Saul and Vicki Larsen, who was Anita’s social worker. “Acknowledging that I know they are truly helping me and how immensely grateful I am, was and is highly important to me,” explains Anita.

Anita on vacation with her family
Anita on vacation with her family.

Q: What inspired you to give to The Ottawa Hospital Foundation?

A: The opportunity to recognize that they are truly helping me and how immensely grateful I am for their consistent wisdom, time, and patience is what inspired me to make a donation.

Q: What is the message you’d like to share about the care you received?

A: I am more than grateful for all the time my care team, including Dr. Saul and Vicki, have given me — patiently listening, gently offering words of wisdom, and reminding me to use my skills.

Q: What did it mean to thank members of your healthcare team through the Gratitude Award Program and to support The Ottawa Hospital at the same time?

A: Beyond my gratitude for them and the entire Mental Health Unit, it is my hope and wish that by supporting The Ottawa Hospital, more funding would result in reaching considerably more patients through the unit, to receive the same exceptional care that I have and continue to receive.

When Petra Smith heard the news that she was pregnant, she thought the experience would be the greatest joy of her life. But instead, her mental health took a drastic turn for the worse. She battled peripartum depression and thoughts of suicide. When the thought of taking another step became too hard to bear, she sought out treatment and care from our experts who were ready to help her through her darkest time.

Bipolar disorder diagnosis

Petra is no stranger to the realities of living with a mental illness having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 21 years old. Nearly a decade later, she still remembers the first time she felt something wasn’t quite right.

She was behaving erratically and experienced an extreme shift in mood that often characterizes bipolar disorder. She experienced high levels of energy and extreme euphoria for several weeks followed by a depressive phase that was difficult to pull out of. Petra’s family encouraged her to speak with her physician, and it wasn’t long until she received an official diagnosis.

“I am fortunate to have a family that is incredibly supportive and encouraging about finding me the help I need to manage my disorder,” said Petra. “A solid support system is key for any person who has been diagnosed with a mental illness.”

This support from family, and the support she would later receive from our hospital, would be critical as Petra’s journey unfolded.

Petra with her family.
Petra with her family and her son, William.

Battling depression during pregnancy

When Petra received news that she was pregnant, she was thrilled. But what started off as an exciting time was soon overshadowed by darkness. Just two months into her pregnancy Petra’s mental health began to deteriorate. Unsure how this would affect her unborn child, she concealed her emotions from anyone outside of her family. With her thoughts buried deep under a smile, she suffered in silence. “I was under this illusion that I couldn’t get any help for how I was feeling,” said Petra. “I feared that I would be seen as an unfit mother and that my baby would be taken away from me.”

New life

As her pregnancy progressed, Petra’s mental health continued to spiral without support — until the birth of her son, William, in 2018.

“I was really amazed by the care I received at The Ottawa Hospital. When I gave birth to my son, I trusted the team with my life. They took the time to keep me informed and reassured me throughout my C-section. I was in excellent hands.”

Following her surgery, Petra’s nurses checked in on her often to ensure she was recovering well. They gave the new mom tips on how to breastfeed and how to change William’s diaper. She developed a special bond with her healthcare team, so Petra felt comfortable opening up about her depression for the first time. After confiding in one of our nurses, she was referred to Dr. Jasmine Gandhi, Medical Director of the Perinatal Mental Health Program.

Petra holding William, following his birth.

Dr. Gandhi was determined to help her and scheduled an appointment soon after. But leading up to the appointment, Petra’s depression worsened significantly. As feelings of complete hopelessness and exhaustion washed over her, she became increasingly suicidal. Unable to get the thought out of her mind, she couldn’t fathom taking another step. “I was at the lowest point a human being can be,” Petra said. “I remember feeling that a human body should not be allowed to keep moving when it feels this way. It was like torture. And I had to care for a newborn baby on top of that.”

As Petra’s follow up appointment approached, her mother Sylvia urged her to be honest with Dr. Gandhi about how she was feeling — this was the only way Petra would get the help that she desperately needed.

Taking her mother’s advice would turn out to be the best decision of Petra’s life — not only saving her life, but creating a better one for William, too.

A diagnosis

On the day of her appointment, Petra’s father, Evan, drove her and waited outside during the hour-long meeting. Little did Evan know, he would drive home alone that day.

“When I was first admitted she looked me directly in the eyes and said, ‘We’re going to get you feeling better.’”

– Petra Smith
Dr. Jasmine Gandhi is a physician in the mental health program at The Ottawa Hospital.

Sitting in Dr. Gandhi’s office, Petra disclosed how she was feeling, including the fact that she was having suicidal thoughts. Concerned for Petra’s safety and that of her baby, Dr. Gandhi admitted her as an inpatient to the Perinatal Mental Health Clinic on the spot.

What Petra was experiencing was peripartum depression. Similar to postpartum depression, peripartum depression is a long-lasting and severe form of clinical depression experienced during pregnancy and up to one year after giving birth. Although experienced differently for each patient, symptoms can include severe mood swings, difficulty bonding with one’s baby, feelings of hopelessness, severe anxiety, and thoughts of harming yourself or your baby. As someone who was previously diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Petra was predisposed to this illness. But opening up to Dr. Gandhi was a significant moment on her road to healing. “It felt like a weight had been lifted,” said Petra. “I didn’t want suicide to be my way out. I wanted to live, and I wanted to live well. And, I wanted to be a good mom to my son.”

Walking in to our Perinatal Mental Health Clinic for the first time, Petra recalls feeling nervous but grateful she was finally getting the help she needed.

Perinatal Mental Health Clinic at The Ottawa Hospital

Our Perinatal Mental Health Clinic provides specialized psychiatric support for people, just like Petra, who are experiencing mental health challenges before, during, and after pregnancy. Prepared to take on even the most complex cases, the Perinatal Mental Health Clinic cares for parents experiencing peripartum depression, anxiety, and psychosis, as well as P-PTSD. During its inception, this cutting-edge program was one of the few of its kind in Canada. Designed to fill a significant gap, this innovative program was created to provide a unique treatment and recovery plan for new and expectant parents.

“When I first arrived at The Ottawa Hospital, I felt broken. But when I left, I felt like I could go on and not just survive another day, but thrive.”

– Petra Smith

Our multidisciplinary team of psychiatrists, social workers, and nurses treat nearly 400 patients a year. “For our moms, and their families, it can be truly life changing to get mental health treatment during the peripartum period, which is the time shortly before, during, or after giving birth,” said Dr. Gandhi. This program ensures pregnant parents are getting the support that they need to create a better life for themselves and their children, and Petra did just that.

Road to recovery

Petra spent the next 12 days getting personalized treatment while staying in the psychiatric unit. She responded well to medication and attended both group and one-on-one therapy sessions. After just a few days, Petra started to feel more like herself again. “I went from long sleepless nights with my son to getting on medication that I needed to make me think straight,” said Petra. “I knew I was getting better for myself and for William.”

Petra with her son William.
Petra and William.

“It could have been the worst-case scenario for Petra. Instead, she’s thriving and doing so well.”

– Dr. Jasmine Gandhi

She put her faith in Dr. Veronica McCarthy, a physician in our Mental Health unit, who was determined to get Petra back on her feet and feeling well. “She was so caring, thoughtful, and attentive,” said Petra, when speaking of Dr. McCarthy. “When I was first admitted she looked me directly in the eyes and said, ‘We’re going to get you feeling better.’ In that moment I believed her, and it turns out she was exactly right. She’s a fantastic physician.”

Dr. McCarthy took great care to tailor Petra’s treatment to her specific needs, finding solutions that would work long term and would be a good fit with Petra’s everyday life at home.

While Petra may have felt broken when she first arrived, when she left, she was not only ready to survive, but also to thrive. And she had an action plan to ensure it.

A bright future

While in our care, Petra began to plan for a happy and successful future that included going to college, getting a diploma, and getting up on her own two feet. Now, she’s near graduation from a law clerk program and looks forward to providing a fruitful life for her son.

“As a physician, one of the most gratifying things that you can experience is knowing that you had some small part in saving someone’s life,” said Dr. Gandhi. “It could have been the worst-case scenario for Petra. Instead, she’s thriving and doing so well. She is an amazing light.”

Petra was treated at The Ottawa Hospital for peripartum depression after giving birth.
Petra was treated for peripartum depression after giving birth.

Forever grateful for the care she received, Petra’s message is one of hope for anyone with mental health issues — a reminder to reach out for help, even when things seem impossible. Because there is always hope for a better tomorrow. “I couldn’t feel more grateful to be healthy and well again. Because of the care I received at The Ottawa Hospital, I have a bright future to look forward to with my son.”

Read our Q&A with the new head of Mental Health at The Ottawa Hospital, Dr. Jess Fiedorowicz

Fièrement affilié à l’Université d’Ottawa, L’Hôpital d’Ottawa est un centre de recherche et de santé universitaire de premier plan.

Inuit carves way to mental well-being after cancer

After his cancer diagnosis, Saila Kipanek, a traditional Inuit carver, couldn’t have imagined how important his life’s work would be for his recovery.

When Saila was diagnosed with cancer, he knew his best chance for survival was treatment at The Ottawa Hospital. But uprooting his life in Nunavut, to be treated in Ottawa, away from his family, friends, and community would prove to be a challenge. It took a toll on his mental health.

But staff at The Ottawa Hospital would go the extra mile to make him feel at home.

A holistic approach to healing

It was a cold February day, when Saila woke up in a post-op recovery room. He was feeling like a shell of his former self. Having spent months away from his home and his loved ones while undergoing cancer treatment, which included chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, he was suffering from extreme depression.

Not long after Saila’s surgery, Carolyn Roberts, a Registered Nurse and First Nations, Inuit, and Metis Nurse Navigator for the Indigenous Cancer Program, took Saila to Gatineau Park. As they sat by the river, Saila shared that his mental health was “in his boots” – but, he knew exactly what he needed to heal. “What I really need is to carve,” he explained to Carolyn. “Carving would help me feel like myself.”

Treating patients from Nunavut in Ottawa

The Ottawa Hospital Cancer Centre, through an agreement with the Government of Nunavut, is the provider of cancer services to residents of Baffin Islands and eastern Nunavut. For this reason, patients like Saila travel thousands of kilometres to receive the very best treatment and care in Ottawa. However, coming to such a large city away from familiar culture, language, and food can make them feel isolated, and take a toll on their mental health.

Patient-centred health care

The role of the Nurse Navigator within the Indigenous Cancer Program is diverse and patient-centred. An important part of Carolyn’s role is to listen to the needs of each patient and work to the best of her ability to accommodate those needs. “If you just listen,” said Carolyn, “patients tell you what they need to heal.”

Carolyn did just that. After listening to Saila’s struggles, she was determined to help him. It was at that moment that Carolyn took it upon herself to find a space within the hospital for Saila to carve.

She approached Kevin Godsman, then one of the Managers of Facilities, to see if there was a room that Saila could use to carve in. With help from his colleagues, he found a room and fitted it out with furniture, tools and a vacuum.

Carolyn Roberts chats with Saila Kapinek at The Ottawa Hospital cancer centre.
Carolyn Roberts chats with Saila Kapinek at The Ottawa Hospital cancer centre.

A grand opening

A party was organized for the grand opening of Saila’s carving room. It was an emotional moment for him, realizing he would be able to carve again.

For the next six weeks, while he underwent his chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Saila carved.

His depression lifted, and his cancer was halted.

“Glad I got back to carving,” said Saila. “Grateful I’m doing it again. It helped in the long run.”

When he returned home to Iqaluit, he took his pieces with him and finished them. At a follow up appointment in September 2018, he brought his finished carvings back to show the team what they helped him create.

“They turned out even better than I imagined,” said Kevin. “It’s nice to know that The Ottawa Hospital has a little part in the making of them too.”

Today, Saila is feeling strong and well, and grateful for the compassionate care he received at The Ottawa Hospital.