The Mental Health Support Groups of Women’s College Hospital

Cancer therapy treated Carrie’s uterine cancer, but not her anxiety about how it would affect her life.

For many women with gynecological cancers, treating the illness is only part of the recovery process. Many experience psychological distress around issues like sexual functioning and body image.

That was the impetus behind GyneGals, a support group that brings gynecological cancer survivors together to discuss the psychosexual impact of cancer and cancer treatment. Each week, members are provided with educational material on relevant topics, and invited to explore the topic in a closed discussion moderated by two mental health professionals.

What’s unique about GyneGals is that it takes place entirely online.

Dr. Catherine Classen, a senior scientist at Women’s College Research Institute (WCRI) and director of the Women’s Mental Health Research Program, notes that online groups can be particularly helpful for conditions that are highly sensitive and private, potentially stigmatizing, or that are so rare it is virtually impossible to get a group together.

“Because it provides privacy, you can do it anonymously and you can bring people who share the same condition together from great distances into an intimate group that otherwise wouldn’t be able to meet,” Dr. Classen explains. The results of the GyneGals pilot study suggest this intervention has the potential to reduce sexual distress. Interviews with women who completed the study indicate that they found it extremely helpful to know that the challenges they were experiencing were not unusual and that they are not alone.

Online groups can provide access to support for patients who might otherwise avoid talking about their condition, who might live outside of areas where support interventions are available, or whose schedules are too busy to meet on a regular basis at a set time and place. That’s why Women’s College Hospital developed online support for people with diabetes or HIV, and for new mothers.

WCRI developed Sweet Sisters, a clinical group for women with diabetes. The response suggested that this group filled an otherwise unmet need. Women commented on how they learned from each other and how this gave them hope. Dr. Classen and her colleagues will also be launching Shared Journey, a clinical group for women living with HIV, in autumn 2012.

While GyneGals and Sweet Sisters were designed for women experiencing mental health issues related to their conditions, Mother Matters is a group for healthy new mothers. It’s designed to help women adjust to the changes and challenges of becoming a parent. By providing a supportive and informative forum, Mother Matters is intended to help prevent post-natal mental health issues.

The Women’s College Online
Mental Health Program is
proudly sponsored by

The psychological impact of medical conditions can be difficult, so it’s crucial to increase access to effective support. GyneGals, Sweet Sisters and Shared Journey not only provide that support, but are also research projects as well. The results will enable researchers to demonstrate the value of the programs, and build empirically validated interventions that can then be used by groups across Canada.

Based on the success of the GyneGals pilot project, Dr. Classen and her colleagues will be running a randomized controlled trial of GyneGals that will include 520 women at sites in Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta and New York City.

The Internet makes it possible to bring support to under-served groups of women, so more groups are in development.

“We’re only just getting started,” Dr. Classen says of online interventions. “There is great potential to provide cost-effective online programs for many types of patients.”

Dr. Catherine Classen
Senior Scientist
Women’s College Research Institute



Ontario’s Action Plan for Health Care, Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care

“New advances have resulted in… virtual health initiatives that are eliminating the barrier of distance.”

Toronto Central LHIN 2010-2013 Health Service Plan

Key priority:
“Improve the prevention, management and treatment of mental illness and addiction.”