​​​Image of Dr. Anna Skorzewska
Dr. Anna Skorzewska, head of the Psychiatry Intensive Care Unit at TGH, teamed with TIFF to create Reel Comfort, a program that aims to engage psychiatric inpatients.​ (Photo: UHN)

When she first started at UHN, Dr. Skorzewska was dismayed at how few activities were offered to patients in the Inpatient Psychiatry unit at Toronto General Hospital (TGH).

"Psychiatric patients are usually physically healthy, young and capable, and I felt there wasn't much for them to do," says Dr. Anna Skorzewska, Head of the Psychiatry Intensive Care Unit at TGH. "I wanted to start building up some programming for them."

So, in 2007, Dr. Skorzewska teamed up with Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) programmer Jane Schoettle and created Reel Comfort, a program aimed to provide both recreational enjoyment and engagement for psychiatric inpatients at TGH.

TIFF provides real comfort

TIFF is a not-for-profit, charitable organization, dedicated to presenting the best of Canadian and international cinema. This year, the 40th Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 10th - 20th, 2015.

Reel Comfort activities include showing films selected by TIFF staff, bringing industry experts to discuss their experience, and holding film-craft workshops on activities such as special effects makeup, clay animation, and screenwriting.

 "Mental illness is a pervasive health issue in Canada," explains Elysse Leonard, Coordinator of the Reel Comfort Programme at TIFF.

"Collaboration between arts and culture organizations and health care can foster increased awareness of mental health issues, reduce the stigma attached to mental illness and promote better health outcomes for us all."

Since Reel Comfort started, Dr. Skorzewska says the feedback from patients has been overwhelmingly positive.

"It's been very helpful to our patients," says Dr. Skorzewska. "The program supports the reinforcement of social skills, self-esteem, and confidence while also being very entertaining for patients."​

Reel Comfort activities

Reel Comfort provides a series of activities on a monthly basis throughout the year.  The activities include the following:

Image of Movie EmoticonFilm screenings of various movie genres are held at the unit. Dr. Skorzewska says she expected psychiatric inpatients to want to watch TIFF films on mental illness, and was surprised to learn that this was not the case.

"Originally, I wanted Reel Comfort to be therapeutic, meaning we watch films relevant to our patients' experiences with mental health, but many of them didn't want that," says Dr. Skorzewska. "They wanted to be entertained because their lives are so difficult as it is."

Image of Microphone EmoticonGuest speakers come in from various areas of the film industry to discuss their career and inspire discussion and questions with the patients. The guest speakers include directors, actors, film programmers and film critics.

"The guest speakers bring a sense of occasion to film events and work to bridge the gap between hospitals and the larger community," explains Elysse.

Image of Workshop emoticonFilm-craft workshops are held and include a variety of activities such as stop-motion animation, screenwriting, special FX makeup, sound effects and set design, and flip-book animation, among many others.

"Workshops complement film screenings by providing an opportunity for participants to collaborate, express themselves creatively, and have fun," says Elysse, whose manager Emily Scheer, currently the Senior Manager, Family & Youth Programming at TIFF, was heavily involved in the launch of the program.

The reel expands

Since Reel Comfort started in TGH in 2007, it's expanded to four other Toronto hospitals - St. Michael's Hospital in 2009; Mount Sinai Hospital and Baycrest Health Sciences in 2014; and St. Joseph's Health Centre as of last month.

In addition to working with these regular partners, Reel Comfort also organizes occasional film-events with a focus on mental health at SickKids, Women's College Hospital, CAMH, as well as other hospitals and community organizations.

The impact of Reel Comfort

In addition to impacting patients, Elysse says she is often inspired by the patients she meets in the Reel Comfort program.

"For me, the most memorable sessions are those that inspire participants to reconnect with related activities they enjoy, like photography or writing; or to inquire about resources in the city for learning more about a specific film topic," she explains.

"For example, after a recent stop-motion animation workshop, one participant expressed interest in taking an animation course offered through the Toronto District School Board."

Along with Reel Comfort, current programming at TGH's psychiatric inpatient units includes many activities such as a Healthy Living Cooking group, a YMCA outing and a gardening group.

Reel Comfort engages an average of ten psychiatric inpatients with the TIFF-related activities offered biweekly in the unit's programming.

"Reel Comfort aims to provide a creative outlet to an underserved population—mental health consumers—and to help nurture improved relationships between health care providers and consumers, artists, and the wider community," says Elysse.

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