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CAMH Stories Centre for Addiction
and Mental Health

Child Youth Workers guiding the next generation

May 3 to 9 is Children’s Mental Health Week, and a good time to meet some of CAMH’s Child and Youth Workers.

Five boys, aged six to eight, are gathered by their classroom door that leads to the playground, watching a bug. They’re staring with rapt attention, exclaiming at its every move. A female classmate sees from a distance. “They do that all the time,” she says.

They’re typical kids in a lot of ways. Except there are only six of them in their classroom, and their classroom is on the ground floor of the Intergenerational Wellness Centre at CAMH. They attend a program called CATCH, which stands for Classroom Assessment and Treatment for Children’s Health. Each of them is here because they have emotional and/or behavioural issues, and conventional schooling hasn’t worked out for them. And each of them has two Child Youth Workers (CYW), including Karen Rayner, with them all day.
 Karen Rayner in the CATCH classroom speaking with some students

“Our hope is the kids are able to sit and do their academic work, but when they’re not able to, that’s when we offer them support,” says Karen. “Whether it’s more support for them to be able to stay with the group, or pulling them out and helping them work on what’s going on so they can manage more successfully in the group, that’s what we do.”

Karen is one of 15 full time CYWs at CAMH, and CATCH is just one program. CYWs work in all programs where children and youth are concerned. Their job is diverse, with a dash of Occupational Therapy, Behavioural Therapy, crisis management, psychology and counselor all in one. CYWs offer direct care to children and youth with maladaptive behavior patterns and social/emotional difficulties. Their role is shaped by the various programs in which they work- from intake and assessment to brief counselling and case management. 

Stacy De Souza is CAMH’s Child Youth Work Discipline Chief as well as a CYW in the Youth Addiction and Concurrent Disorder Service (YACDS). “Here at CAMH, we are embedded in the Child, Youth and Family Service in various ways such as frontline supports in the inpatient unit and day treatment classrooms. We also play an integral role across CAMH participating in various centre-wide initiatives such as BPSO champions, PMAB facilitators, I-CARE advance users and Health and Equity facilitators, to name a few. CYWs provide education and training to professional students.”

Jessica Savoie is a CYW who works on the YACDS Inpatient Unit, which works with clients aged 14 and 18 who have substance abuse and mental health concerns. “I’m very humbled being in a career that I love and am extremely passionate about,” says Jessica. She and her colleagues provide a lot of different types of support, depending on what the client needs. Working in a multidisciplinary team that includes psychiatrists, social workers, nurses, an advanced practice nurse and manager, she provides what she considers to be two of the biggest motivators for her clients: validation and empathy.

“We have clients that do come back and say, ‘I wouldn’t’ve come back if I didn’t feel safe’. A client said that to me the other day. He also stated that he was always anxious about coming to this place and how much he felt supported by the staff. He’s on his second term and he says, ‘I always complained about this place, but at the same time, deep down, I really like this place because it’s a place that made me safe and I was able to do well when I received help’.”

Working closely with young people with mental health concerns was something CYW Robin Simoes knew she wanted to do ever since she was young herself. Now she works on the YACDS Inpatient Unit. “I was a teen that actually had gone through some difficult times and had some really good people, a child and youth worker actually, kind of take me under her wing and supported me and the rest is history,” says Robin. “So I figured out really quickly that I wanted to give back the same way that people had done for me.” 

 Top Row: Jessica Savoie 
Bottom (L to R): Katie McWatters, Robin Simoes and Karen Rayner

The joy of working as a CYC comes from the interactions with their clients, watching them set and achieve goals. “They’re very proud moments when you see the clients you’re working with make steps forward and make changes in their life,” says Katie McWatters, another CYW working in the YACDS, currently working in the outpatient unit. “It feels like a nice honour to have that rapport with them and have them let you into their lives. A lot of people haven’t been able to trust people in their life. It’s rewarding and touching to have clients let you into their lives and trust you.”

“Their resilience, their sense of humour. It’s just amazing to see a young person experience so many challenges, so many difficult times, sometimes terrible times like trauma, and be able to find that inner strength and pick themselves back up and keep fighting and living life,” says Robin.

Karen has worked in the CATCH program for 14 years and over the years has seen many children’s behavioural, social and academic performance improve greatly, due in large part to the work of she and her colleagues. For example, the one girl in this year’s classroom, who, when she arrived, was “super anxious, highly aggressive.” 

“She was someone who was completely ostracized, she had no friends,” says Karen, as she watches her client kick a ball around at recess. “She would punch kids, run up and down and refuse to do her schoolwork. Once she came here and we laid out her schedule, she knew what to expect. Once she knew we were going to be consistent, her anxiety decreased.”

“Once she realized we would keep her safe here, we haven’t seen any aggression from her. She takes risks now. She asks for help and the fact that she’s the only girl isn’t even an issue for her.” The same girl now takes other kids in class under her wing and is the most focused while a teacher reads to the class.

Despite all the challenges, that’s what makes this job worth it. Katie remembers a 14-year-old girl who had a lot of oppositional behaviour and who didn’t want to be on the inpatient unit. “I’ve actually seen her a few times since she’s been discharged and she’s given me a big hug and thanked me for all my support and said sorry that she gave us such a hard time.”

“Our Child and Youth Workers are the backbone to the services provided in the Child, Youth and Family Service,” says Raju Bains, outpatient manager of the YACDS. “They develop meaningful relationships with our children and youth while providing support, counselling, role modelling and management of behaviour. Child and Youth Workers are highly valued members of our interprofessional teams both in our inpatient and outpatient programs.”

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