So for those of you who aren’t aware of my day job, my long-winded title is “Clinical Inpatient Dietitian in Complex Mental Illness at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH)”. I’ve been working at CAMH just shy of 3 years now. When I first started working at the hospital, my background in mental health was extremely limited. Working in downtown Toronto in community health gave me a bit of exposure, but I was far from an expert. And I will remind you all that I am STILL by no means an expert. Working in mental health is a continuing learning experience, and I learn something new every day on the job.
Recently I was extremely lucky to speak at a conference in Ottawa for the Family Health Team (FHT) Dietitian network. It was such a fantastic learning experience for me, and a great opportunity to share my knowledge with others and increase exposure to the exciting world of nutrition and mental health.
I explained during my presentation that when I was in school for Applied Human Nutrition (back in the day kids), I don’t recall learning ANYTHING about mental health. The only thing I can really think of is learning about the management of dementia/Alzheimer’s. But working in the field, it honestly shocks me how much there is to know, and how the role that nutrition plays is always changing. For example, nutrition-related interventions can pop up in many of the following scenarios (and this list is not exhaustive!):
-Managing metabolic side-effects with antipsychotic medications (weight gain, increased appetite, insulin resistance)
-Helping clients cope with food-related delusions, hallucinations and phobias
-Managing macro/micronutrient deficiencies after abstaining from substances or recovering from an acute psychotic episode (many of my clients come into hospital really malnourished because they do not eat or take care of themselves)
-Teaching basic life skills around shopping, storing and cooking food
-Helping clients on a budget make healthier choices within their budgets
-Helping clients manage other chronic diseases (diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, kidney disease) that they may have ON TOP OF their mental illness
-Education and research on how food affects mood, depression (such as the mind-gut connection)
-Keeping updated on current research and what is emerging around nutraceuticals (e.g. there is research going on right now looking at nutritional supplements as adjunct therapy to medications used to treat schizophrenia)
-Debunking myths around food fads and the evidence on what works/doesn’t (e.g. I have educated patients and families on the relationships between gluten and schizophrenia symptoms)
As you can see, there is a lot coming down the pipe! It makes me very excited to be involved in this area of healthcare. Recently I’ve been having some feelings of doubt related to my position at CAMH. Mostly these feelings are in my own head, after a particularly bad day where I wonder “am I really making a difference, am I actually helping anyone?” The answer I have to keep telling myself is YES, YES a million times YES. As you can see above, a Dietitian can play a HUGE part in mental health, and the part is just going to get better as more knowledge emerges. So rather than feeling bad and wondering whether my job makes any impact, I’m going to embrace my unique role and do as much as I can to learn, grow and help those with a mental illness thrive 🙂