Slouched in chairs and sporting hoodies, a group of students listen intently as a guest speaker presents on spoken word poetry. Questions are asked and hands are raised, eager to answer. This could be a scene in any Canadian high school but this is no ordinary classroom.
The Youth Day Hospital program, part of the Youth Addictions and Concurrent Disorders Service at CAMH, allows teens with addiction and mental health issues to stay in school - with Toronto District School Board teachers delivering the curriculum and CAMH staff from social workers to psychologists supporting their recovery. And among that group of boys is a clean-cut and well-mannered teen – Austin.
Teacher Robyn Pape working with Austin on a history lesson.
Growing up in North Toronto in a leafy suburban neighbourhood, things went off the rails for Austin after his parents divorced. "I felt pretty helpless and disconnected," he remembers. "It was tough because of what was happening at home and school was hard. So it was easier to be the class clown than deal with my problems at home so I wasted a lot of years at school."
And it was in the schoolyard where problems really began. Bullied and teased relentlessly, Austin became a tough guy to mask some of the pain he was feeling. "I was picked on and bullied when I was younger so when I got a little older, I turned around and bullied other kids all the way through elementary school," he admits.
Older kids schooled him in smoking and eventually drugs and alcohol. Desperate to be accepted and dodge the problems at home, Austin started with smoking and by time he was 12, he was smoking marijuana. "I hung out with older kids because they seemed cool to me at the time and they didn’t pick on me."
Dulling the pain he felt was his first priority. When marijuana was not enough, he turned to taking codeine, mixing it with a little Sprite to make him forget. "I did pot, drank alcohol, anything that gave me a buzz. I don’t remember one day when I was in high school when I wasn’t stoned," says the 16-year-old.
Problems with the principal eventually led to problems with the police. When asked about the toll it took on his family, he grows quiet. "I put my family through a lot. It was especially hard on my grandmother to see me like that."
It took a bad marijuana trip and a scary bus ride home to put him on the path to recovery. "I got high too fast and I could hardly walk. Everything was swirling and going black," he says, shaking his head. He stumbled onto a TTC bus to make his way home. "I thought I was going to die. I kept thinking to myself, I don’t want to go out like this."
When he woke up the next morning, he was determined to alter the course of his life. "I didn’t want to keep hurting myself, my family and so I decided it was time for things to change and I had to get help." So he asked his parents to take him to CAMH.
He enrolled in a summer program and has been going to school here ever since.
"The program is unique in that students don’t have to give up their education to get treatment for anxiety, depression or addiction," explains Robyn Pape, a teacher in the program. "Also these students are in a class with other kids who understand what they are going through instead of being the odd one out in a regular classroom."
When asked about how he feels about going to school while getting treatment, Austin is upbeat. "It’s been good so far. Instead of escaping reality which is what I was doing with the drugs and the drinking, I started dealing with issues head-on," he says, red Beats headphones draped around his neck. Those issues included substance abuse, nicotine addiction and depression. But Austin doesn’t want to be defined by them.
Austin’s teacher Robyn smiles broadly when asked about her student. "He came an hour early the first week of school and when I asked him why, he said that he wanted to prove he wanted it and show how committed he was to getting better."
Now Austin is pulling great grades at school and working a part-time job, a far cry from his life before he came to CAMH. Not only does he plan to kick his smoking habit, he wants to transition back to a regular school. He also warns people not to judge kids who struggle with addiction issues too quickly. "People think it’s just kids from the ghettos but there are plenty of kids from nice areas, from good homes and families who get into trouble with drugs and drinking. You just have to look under the surface."
With recovery in sight, Austin is looking forward. "I was self-destructive at the time and I just couldn’t seem to escape trouble. Now I have goals and plans for the future."