Dr. Valerie Taylor, psychiatrist-in-chief at Women’s College Hospital, is leading the way in breaking down barriers to care when it comes to women’s mental health. She spoke to us about how she and her team at Canada’s largest clinical and research program for women’s mental health are working to improve access and close the gaps — and her advice for other women on a mission to make a difference.
By Marie Moore
When Dr. Valerie Taylor joined Women’s College Hospital (WCH) as psychiatrist-in-chief in 2011, she knew she was standing on the shoulders of giants: in 1926, WCH established one of the earliest outpatient women’s mental health programs in Toronto and has been a leader in the field ever since.
But it’s under Dr. Taylor’s watch that the hospital’s Women’s Mental Health Program has grown into Canada’s largest clinical and research program of its kind. To her, that title comes with a responsibility to strive to reach women well beyond the walls of Women’s College Hospital.
“Our goal is not just to be a clinical resource and to provide excellent care — which clearly we try to do — but we also understand that we have a mandate to improve care provincially and even nationally,” she says. “Our focus on virtual, online care ensures that the expertise we’ve developed is accessible not just to people within a certain radius of the hospital, but to a much broader population. We’re thinking all the time about how we can reach more people.”
The issue of access to care is particularly crucial when it comes to women’s mental health, says Dr. Taylor. Not only do women face more barriers to accessing mental health services than men, but the stigma can be greater, too.
“Women are more likely to have issues with poverty, or challenges juggling the care of children or their aging parents,” she says. “Women are less likely to engage in addiction programming, because they don’t have thirty days to give up between work and childcare responsibilities. And stigma plays a huge role: women often think that if they get sick it means they aren’t good mothers. If a woman is in the workforce and she gets depressed, she thinks she is proving the rhetoric that women can’t keep up.”
Dr. Taylor became interested in issues of mental health early on — when she was still in medical school, in fact. It was then that she took notice of the unique challenges women face when it comes to receiving care for mental health concerns, as well as what appeared to be a strong relationship between mental health and chronic diseases. Since then, she’s devoted her career not only to breaking down barriers to care but to understanding how mental health impacts physical health, and vice versa.
But it’s her focus on developing new models of virtual care that’s positioning Women’s College Hospital as a world-leader in bringing mental healthcare to women where and when they need it.
“It’s important for everybody to know that behind every great success is a lot of failures. It’s okay to do things wrong and to learn from them, and it’s important to be in an environment where you are allowed to do that.”
The hospital’s online Mother Matters program, for example, provides virtual support to women during pregnancy, and Dr. Taylor’s team has partnered with the University of Toronto to create the Online Psychiatric Evaluation Network (OPEN), which is a series of online educational modules that helps educate families, patients and practitioners about different issues related to mental health. The hospital also helps to evaluate large, national e-health programs, to ensure they are effective.
“I think that e-health visits, e-consults and virtual care can’t replace face-to-face all the time,” says Dr. Taylor, “but it can certainly help patients who are restricted in terms of their access — and helps us provide care to women in even the most remote communities.”
While her tenure at Women’s College Hospital has by all measures been a great success, Dr. Taylor’s career hasn’t been without its setbacks. “About a million,” she says with a laugh. But she sees these challenges as a chance to learn and improve, and she advises other women to do the same.
“It’s important for everybody to know that behind every great success is a lot of failures. It’s okay to do things wrong and to learn from them, and it’s important to be in an environment where you are allowed to do that. It’s okay if you don’t succeed at one thing, or you don’t succeed the first time — you just have to revisit and refocus. Sometimes people, women especially, think that means they can’t hack it. But they shouldn’t get discouraged.”
This positive attitude has not only enabled her many achievements, but has also helped define her leadership style, which she says is based on creating optimism and instilling trust. It’s clearly having an impact: over the past six years, Dr. Taylor and her team have continued to improve upon one of world’s premier women’s mental health programs. Around 70,000 women access services at WCH each year, with countless more benefitting from virtual care programs.
As she leads her team to new accomplishments and ever-greater impact, Dr. Taylor says she never stops asking herself two questions:
“How can we be innovative to ensure that people are getting the appropriate care? How can we continue to be a leader in this area? People’s lives are being changed because of the work we’re doing here, and we can never stop striving for better.”
For more than 100 years Women’s College Hospital (WCH) has been developing revolutionary advances in healthcare, and working to close the health gaps that exist in healthcare for women because their unique needs are not taken into consideration. Today, WCH is a world leader in the health of women and Canada’s leading, academic ambulatory hospital. It focuses on delivering innovative solutions that address Canada’s most pressing issues related to population health, patient experience and system costs.