TDSB High School Program at CAMH provides specialized education for youth with mental illnesses
By Mike Hajmasy
“You know that feeling you get when you’re climbing to the top of a rollercoaster, just waiting for the drop? I basically felt that all day, every day.”
This is how 18-year-old David Pinto described feeling in the traditional high school environment. David is a bright, fun-spirited person who seems to know something about everything. He also has an anxiety disorder, and as a result, benefits from a specialized learning environment like the one offered as part of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) High School Program at CAMH’s College Street site.
“This type of environment has been much better for me,” he said with a smile on his face. “I’ve made friends here and continue to work towards completing high-school.”
A specialized program designed for specific needs
This academic day school program offers people under 21 who are struggling with a mental illness the opportunity to earn high school credits. It is one of several TDSB Section 23 Programs, which assist students who require their educational needs be met in specialized settings.
David (second from the right) works with CAMH volunteers Meagan, Corey and Iffat.
Operating under CAMH’s Complex Mental Illness Service, the TDSB High School Program services youth with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, as well as mood, anxiety and borderline personality disorders.
To attend, students must be under the care of a psychiatrist, but it isn’t mandatory that he or she is a CAMH patient. Students who are referred will be assessed by Dr. Crystal Baluyut, Clinic Head of CAMH's Early Psychosis Program, Psychiatrist and Director of the TDSB High School Program, and if it’s a good fit, their psychiatrist will work collaboratively with a case manager and TDSB teachers Sara Austin and Janice Karlinsky.
“CAMH is committed to providing support to youth in transition and facilitating all aspects of their recovery,” explained Dr. Baluyut. “This includes the ability to pursue education.”
“In some cases, people with mental illness need an alternative learning environment where they can learn and focus on recovery,” said Janice. “That’s what we offer here. Treatment informs the academic programming; our team works together to set individualized goals.”
A typical day in the TDSB classroom at CAMH
Although the program runs out of CAMH, there is rarely a clinical person present during class time. Instead, students work one-on-one with teachers Sara, Janice and a group of volunteers. Speaking fondly of the volunteers, Janice said, “These are compassionate, friendly, peer-aged people who make a big difference to our program.”
Janice (far left), Sara (third from the right) and volunteers (L to R) Meagan Lindley, Corey Sermer, Iffat Sajjad and Brittney Brightman.
“The program is geared specifically to the needs of individuals with mental health challenges,” Sara explained. “Subjects covered include English, Literacy, Math, Science, Visual Art, Phys Ed and Learning Strategies.”
“But the curriculum isn’t delivered in a rigid way,” she clarified. “The goal is to meet students where they’re at. We work under the assumption that there’s more than one way to get where you’re going.”
Marina Doulis, another student enrolled in the TDSB High School Program at CAMH, says this alternative learning environment has made the difference for her. “As someone with a borderline personality disorder and anxiety, it was a challenge for me to manage the typical class environment and a social life,” she explained. “Here, they’re very understanding and accommodating when it comes to mental illness and the one-on-one attention I’ve received has helped me get back on track.”
Marina works on her latest art piece with CAMH volunteer Brittney. Marina is an exceptional painter and was previously enrolled in an arts school.
When asked about goals moving forward, Marina said she’d like to pursue further education and a career in psychology. “Throughout my own experiences with mental illness there've been many people who have really helped me,” she said. “I’d like to be able to offer the same to someone else one day. I want to be that positive person in someone else’s life.”
Interested in the TDSB High School Program at CAMH?
The TDSB High School Program at CAMH operates four and a half days a week from September to June and follows the TDSB calendar. It can accommodate 16 students at a time, but intake is continuous throughout the year. Parents and care providers are encouraged to inquire.
For more information, please contact Janice Karlinsky (ext. 34082) or Sara Austin (ext. 34014). “If you’re calling over the summer and don’t hear back from us right away, don’t worry!” Sara was keen to point out. “We’re away for the summer and will get back to you at the beginning of September.”