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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

Improving access to psychotherapy and encouraging women in science

When Dr. Patricia Lingley Pottie was about to graduate high school on Nova Scotia’s south shore in the early eighties, she was given the results of a new computerized aptitude test — which she calls a “very primitive precursor to today’s artificial intelligence, albeit a pioneer in its day.”

“I was assessed as being well-suited to three career path options,” she said, fresh off a flight from the Northwest Territories. The Strongest Families Institute (SFI), where she is president, CEO, and co-founder, has just received funding to expand its services from Bell Let’s Talk and the N.W.T. government.

SFI re-imagines what good mental health care looks like. It provides cost-effective solutions to the barriers often associated with receiving mental health care, and has strong, successful outcomes.  The organization’s highly trained coaches deliver proven, skills-based programs to families in the comfort of their own homes (by phone and internet).

“I can’t emphasize how important such flexibility is,” said Pottie. “Many families that come to us have incomes around the poverty line, so missing work is a non-starter. SFI’s approach ensures that clients don’t miss work; plus,” she continued, her irrepressible passion bubbling to the surface, “our client-centred approach also means no waiting and no financial burden!”

When seeing those early aptitude test results, Pottie couldn’t have dreamed where her career would take her. “At that time,” she said, “my three best career choices were housewife, hairdresser, and nurse.” While wondering aloud about the role of sex and gender in her computer-generated tea leaves, she noted that “so many more doors are open to women today, and we’re seeing an increase in their numbers in the sciences.”

Pottie’s early career as a nurse at SickKids Hospital in Toronto, largely in the nephrology unit, reached a turning point when one of her smallest patients, a little girl named Judy, died from a rare genetic disorder after having lived through 28 agonizing surgeries and three transplants.

“In the three years I cared for Judy I watched her endure more than most people do in a lifetime. She was the inspiration for me to make the leap from caring to curing,” Pottie explained. “As a nurse, I could alleviate suffering, which is so important. But as a student who had always been enamoured with chemistry, math, and sciences, a big part of me wanted to do research, where I felt there was a capacity to learn more about how to prevent and cure illnesses.”

Fast-forward three decades, during which time Pottie has achieved many impressive milestones her aptitude test never imagined. She is now a world-renowned researcher with the IWK Health Centre in Halifax and an assistant professor in psychiatry at Dalhousie University. Together with co-researcher Dr. Patrick McGrath (SFI co-founder and board chair), Pottie is well on her way to turning the mental health service delivery model on its head.

“Innovation is important, and that’s why I’m so proud of how we’ve built the technology to deliver high-quality distance education and behavioral skills training for a fraction of what traditional programs cost.”

Pottie is talking about IRIS — an innovative software platform so sophisticated and integral to the running of SFI that ‘she’ is thought of as a fully fledged part of the team. “IRIS can tell us anything we ask her, because we built her from the ground up to be the most responsive, user-friendly, useful tool we could imagine.”

We’ve come so far from the early days of AI that you’d be forgiven for thinking IRIS was a human being with thoughts and feelings of her own. While Pottie’s effervescence is at its peak when she’s describing IRIS’s capabilities, she laments that running IRIS is no mean feat as a non-profit.

Luring programmers with the promise of “change-the-world work,” she hopes her small stable of computer scientists will soon be building an app that is the capstone of SFI’s stepped care model.

“If I won the lottery tomorrow, we’d be building an app people could use on- and off-line, not only in Canada’s rural and remote communities, but also for military personnel overseas,” enthused Pottie (her biggest challenge is explaining to potential funders how expensive IRIS is to maintain and advance). “I would also leverage the funds to ensure equitable access to our programs for all Canadians!”

SFI’s success is due largely to Pottie’s indomitable character. When asked what excites her, she exclaims, “Data! The information we mine is worth more than gold! With data, we can report outcome results to our clients and funders, and we know what changes are needed to meet our clients’ needs!”

Pottie’s generous spirit infuses everything she does. Her only frustration is being unable to help every family who knocks on her door.

But where she can effect change, she does. Pottie mentors nearly every potential leader who walks through SFI’s doors. She believes in the power of investing in the next generation of innovators and offers advice to young people who are seeking to find their path.

In Pottie’s own words, “Find a mentor whose beliefs, vision, and aspirations align with yours, then ask them to meet with you. It’s amazing how many will say yes.

There’s no stopping today’s young people. They aren’t confined to the narrow results of an aptitude test.”

As it turns out, neither was she.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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