Cameron Webster is living proof that life sometimes has a way of coming full circle. In 2014, Webster became a client of Island Health’s Early Psychosis Intervention (EPI) Program in Victoria after being diagnosed with psychosis; a year later he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, which features symptoms of schizophrenia and mood disorders.
Today, he’s a peer support worker for the same Victoria program, which has since expanded and is set to move into a new, bigger space this December. The team features two peers; in his role, Webster uses his understanding to reach out and support other young people in the community or a hospital setting who are EPI clients. He may take them out to participate in a game of soccer or basketball, play some chess or chat over a cup of coffee. The key is to interact and connect.
“I never thought when I first got sick that years later I’d be coming back as a worker and trying to help others who go through the same thing I went through,” says Webster, 28. “It feels good. I get to help people who are dealing with the same issues I did in the past by using first-hand knowledge and experience.”
It’s a remarkable story, and one that led to a 2022 MHSU Community Service Award for Webster (his journey is also documented in a short film called Follow My Brain). He notes that while his time with psychosis marked the hardest part of his life, it also had unforeseen benefits. “I’ve had jaw surgery. I’ve boxed. I’ve gone through painful things – but psychosis is definitely at the top,” he says. “But having gone through it, there were some positives in terms of more direction in life, more compassion for others.”
Following his recovery, Webster studied mental health and addictions at Victoria’s Camosun College, and joined the Victoria EPI program as a peer support worker in 2021. “I find it quite rewarding,” he says. “Now I get to try and have an impact on others.”
When psychosis surfaces, it’s crucial to provide treatment as soon as possible. “A lot of these individuals are at very significant developmental stages in their lives where they’re forming their identity, they’re forming their social path, their path in life. And if they become really disconnected from that it’s a real setback,” says John Braun, manager of the Victoria EPI program. “We know that the earlier we intervene, the shorter the duration of untreated psychosis, the better the outcomes – the less damage to the brain that occurs, less family disruption. We can keep people better engaged socially, educationally, vocationally if we engage early.”
The Victoria EPI team is the largest in the Island Health region, and consists of a range of roles, including nursing, social work, occupational therapy, peer support and psychiatry. The goal is to work with clients between 13 and 35 years of age, and follow them for two to three years; the team currently supports an estimated 200 clients. “EPI overall is a very attractive field for people to work in,” says Braun, who joined the Victoria team in 2010. “It’s hopeful. It’s meaningful. You’re working with the entire family system. You’re seeing positive results.”
Early psychosis intervention evolved in the 1990s in various countries as a way to treat those experiencing their first episode of psychosis, a condition that impacts the brain and can affect someone’s ability to determine what is real and what isn’t. About three per cent of people experience psychosis during their lifetime. It often develops during adolescence and early adulthood; psychotic onsets tend to occur earlier in males than females. Some of the most commons disorders associated with psychosis include schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder and major depression.
Hopeful and meaningful work: the team behind Victoria’s Early Psychosis Intervention Program
Jody Simpson, team lead of the Victoria EPI program, loves her role. “I feel very, very lucky,” she says. “When you meet somebody, there’s that initial contact, and they’re scared. Their families are scared. And there’s something really rewarding about being able to say ‘I got you, we’ve got your back here, we’re going to help you navigate this.’”
Simpson has been with the Victoria program for more than a decade. The team has grown considerably during that time, thanks especially to provincial funding announced in 2021 that enabled it to meet provincial standards, provide more in-house supports such as counselling and social work, and increase peer and family supports. “Family is a huge part of an early psychosis program because a lot of these folks are young, and being able to have a family counsellor and run a group specifically for parents has been very well received,” she says. “They can learn alongside what’s going on, how do I cope with this, and how do I work with my young adult or adolescent child who’s experiencing these things.”
The move to a bigger space in Saanich, scheduled for December 2023, is another exciting step for the Victoria program. Braun notes that its services are currently divided between two locations – one for those aged 13 to 23, and the other for those aged 23 to 35. The upcoming move, however, will bring together all programming in-house and in one location to serve the full age range.
Previously, as clients aged they had to transition from the child and youth service to the adult service. “Now it will be just one service. It’s less likely for people to fall through a gap or become disengaged,” he says. “There’s not a whole new engagement process that has to happen, so that’s exciting. Just bringing the team together under one roof is huge as well, in that we can work in a much more team-based way.”
Anyone in the community can refer to the Victoria EPI program, including self-referrals from youth and young adults, or referrals from family or friends. If you have a concern about yourself or someone you know, you can:
- Call the EPI referral line at 250-519-1936 to speak with a member of the team
- Fax a referral to 250-370-8199
- You can also see your family physician, nurse practitioner or walk-in doctor and ask for a referral to the EPI service
For more, view videos of alumni from EPI programs in BC speaking about their experiences.