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New clinical psychology offering at UTSC lends hope

UTSC's clinical psychology team: (from left) Michael Bagby, Amanda uliaszek, Anthony Ruocco, Marc Fournier, Konstantine Zakzanis.

In 2003, suffering from deep depression, 18-year-old Nancy Xia walked out onto her family’s eighth floor balcony and threw herself off of it.

Amazingly, she survived her suicide attempt. But the Toronto Grade 12 student was left a paraplegic, unable to move her legs and now using a wheelchair. For a long time, she didn’t want to tell people why. “I thought it was very shameful,” she says. “When people wondered about it, I would often lie to them.”

Then she attended Prof. Konstantine Zakzanis’s second-year class in abnormal psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough, where he encouraged students to share personal experiences with mental illness. Xia decided it was time to volunteer her own story.

In front of 500 students, she talked about how, when the depression hit, she didn’t know where to turn. Her family doctor gave her only a sleeping pill. Friends and relatives were unable to help. “I could not control the desire to die,” she says.

What she clearly needed was professional help. But that can be hard to come by in Ontario. Psychiatrists have long waiting lists, and not many GPs are trained in psychotherapy. Most shockingly, perhaps, Ontario has in recent years posted the second-lowest ratio of clinical psychologists to population in Canada – despite huge demand to get into the field.

Now the University of Toronto aims to improve that balance and help more people like Xia.

Beginning in September 2013, UTSC will offer a PhD in Clinical Psychology in the new graduate department of Psychological Clinical Science. It will augment a graduate program in applied psychology at U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) that has long been accredited for training clinical and counselling psychologists.
Moreover, the UTSC students will be among the best prepared to apply for the highly competitive spots at hospitals and clinics where they must do two practica and an internship before qualifying. Thanks to a generous gift of $1.5 million from an anonymous donor who heard about Xia’s story from Zakzanis, some of the students will be able to offer themselves as fully funded interns – at no cost to the institution involved.

“We’re going to be putting out practitioners who will be out there on the front lines helping people on a day to day basis,” says George Cree, interim chair of UTSC’s Department of Psychology. Cree says an underlying goal driving the faculty is the desire to train people in the lab to push the science forward. “How can we better treat people with depression, for example, than prescribing drugs? We know there are alternatives and we want to train the students who will be finding the new methods.”

The program will put strong emphasis on evidence-based clinical practice, says Prof. Michael Bagby, a world-renowned clinical psychologist who was formerly director of clinical research and chief of psychology at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and is still a senior scientist there. Evidence-based clinical practice refers to techniques, including methods of psychotherapeutic intervention and neuropsychological assessment, that are scientifically proven to be effective.

Among them is the growing area of study known as “mindfulness”, a technique of mental concentration that can be used to combat depression and other problems.

“Our main strength is our faculty,” says Cree. “We’ve got fantastic people and I think that’s what will distinguish us.” Altogether, seven faculty at UTSC and 10 at OISE will be involved.

UTSC will accept five to six students into the program in September, growing to a full complement of 25 or so once the full six-year MA and PhD cycle is complete. For internships, the department already boasts strong relationships with CAMH and Sunnybrook Hospital.

As for Xia, she finally found the right medication for what was eventually diagnosed as bipolar disorder. Since 2008, she has returned to Zakzanis’s class every year to tell her story, inspiring other students to follow. Zakzanis, who chaired the committee that first proposed the clinical psychology PhD, calls these appearances “coming out of the closet” about mental illness, fostering a culture of acceptance.

Xia also tells her story twice a week to high school students who visit the Toronto location of Spinal Cord Injury Ontario, where she works as an information coordinator. “If someone had told me their story, I probably would not have jumped,” she says. “I would have had hope.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough