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Kathryn Embacher loves the challenge and the hope of patient-care journeys

Kathryn Embacher is passionate about helping patients who live with the most challenging mental-health and substance-use issues on their journey to wellness.
Kathryn Embacher
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Embacher is the new senior director of patient care services for complex, concurrent disorders at BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services. That means she’s responsible for delivering quality, evidence-based clinical care for patients at the Burnaby Centre for Mental Health and Addiction, the Heartwood Centre for Women and the future Centre for Mental Health and Addiction, which is set to open in 2020.

She has 15 years of patient care and leadership experience at both PHSA and Vancouver Coastal Health behind her—most of it in psychiatric and addictions nursing. 

“This kind of nursing is more focused than other practice areas on relationships with patients—that’s the part I like,” she said. “Working through the unique treatment journeys with clients and watching their growth is such a rewarding experience.”

Previously, Embacher was a program director at the Burnaby Centre for Mental Health and Addiction. Now that the Burnaby Centre and Heartwood portfolios, which have many similarities, have merged, she’s looking forward to staff at each site learning from one another. 

The Burnaby Centre provides specialized inpatient treatment services for men and women with severe, complex and concurrent substance-use and mental-health concerns. Heartwood specifically treats women with complex concurrent disorders.

“Concurrent disorders mean there is more than one challenge or issue at play, and one often exacerbates the other, which can make treatment very challenging,” said Embacher. “There is always a severe, chronic mental-health issue as well as a substance-use issue. This combination can contribute to other medical and social challenges. Often, there is a brain injury, and often, the patient cannot work, which can lead to poverty and a lack of a fixed address. 

“Treating these issues together is so complex that many facilities simply don’t,” continued Embacher. “Many addiction treatment centres don’t accept clients with severe mental illnesses, and many mental-health facilities don’t address addiction. We help the clients who can’t get treatment elsewhere. Just this week, a client’s mother told me she was so grateful that for the first time ever, her son was able to stay in a treatment program and wasn’t asked to leave because of the complexity of his issues.” 

Embacher first became acquainted with complex patient populations during her nurse preceptorship at the Vancouver City Jail—a huge proportion of her clients there had mental-health and substance-use issues.

“When I saw the need and how ill people were—so many were ill, homeless, or addicted—I wanted to be part of the solution for that population.”

At the Burnaby Centre, about half of patients are voluntary. The other half are certified under the Mental Health Act. At Heartwood, all patients are voluntary. Both facilities serve all of B.C., receiving referrals from the other health authorities.

Most patients stay between three and nine months, and they can return if they need to. Rather than thinking of a return as a relapse, Embacher and her staff consider it a normal part of the patient journey. “Sometimes it’s two steps forward and one step back. Treatment isn’t always linear when illnesses are so complex,” said Embacher.

Embacher’s teams at the Burnaby Centre and Heartwood include social workers, nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists, physicians, occupational therapists and many other therapeutic disciplines.

Treatments are wide-ranging, including self-regulation, group addictions programs, crisis management, acupuncture, art therapy, music therapy, opioid agonist treatment and more. 

“Every care plan is trauma-informed, strengths-based and recovery-oriented. We want to help patients focus on what they do well, and give them the hope, the tools, and the resources they need to step successfully back in to their communities while continuing to get well. Their loved ones are often a part of that, so we involve them in the treatment plans as much as possible.”

Embacher can’t say enough about the teams she works with every day. “Our staff are some of the most dedicated people I’ve ever met,” she said. “This is not easy work. They’re here because they are committed to our clients’ recovery and truly want to help.”
addiction; BC Mental Health & Substance Use Services; mental health; People in Profile
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