When students take a seat in Andrew Bringas’ class at Toronto East General Hospital, the first thing they see on their desks is an aquarium swimming with tiny frogs.
For Grade 7 to 12 students who have stopped going to their regular school because of a mental health problem, the frogs are a welcome sign – the hospital’s Building Bridges class is not what you might expect.
“They didn’t treat me like a patient,” says Nicole Acaso, who struggled to manage her anxiety before she took the 18-week course last winter.
“They were fun, and they joked around with me,” she said. “They acted like I was their peer, and they had something to learn from me.”
At 18, Acaso has gone from Building Bridges to graduating from St. Patrick Secondary School to enrolling in a college theatre program.
Anxiety in check, she had no trouble telling her story in front of all the big-wigs gathered at the official Oct. 9 opening of the new Child and Adolescent Mental Health wing that houses Building Bridges and several more services.
Dr. Krista Lemke is a psychiatrist and director of the child mental health service, which opened in a much smaller space at the hospital in October 2005.
Besides the school program, it offers psychiatric consultations, an anxiety clinic, a small reference library and a teleconference room that will allow psychiatrists at the hospital to see children at a distant family doctor’s office.
Critically, Dr. Lemke said, it also offers an urgent care clinic where psychiatrists can meet families in a crisis situation and hopefully avoid an involuntary hospital admission.
“Child mental health is in the public eye like never before, and that is fantastic news,” she said.
“But increased awareness leads to increased awareness of need, and we need to meet that need.”
Down the hall in the Building Bridges class, teacher Andrew Bringas is meeting that need by doing all he can to get his students back in school.
“I don’t have a principal who says, ‘Curriculum, curriculum, curriculum,’” Bringas said. “They’re just saying, ‘Get these kids back.’”
“And for me as a professional, there’s nothing more rewarding.”
Bringas teaches classes of just eight students at a time. All have been out of school for at least a semester, some for years.
He covers humanities – English, social science, history – and math classes up to Grade 9. Bringas also runs credit courses in health and general learning strategies, which can include breathing exercises in a fitness room downstairs to a downtown scavenger hunt.
In three years, Bringas has worked with refugee children, whose phobias prevent them from riding the TTC, or whose anxiety has kept them housebound, away from crowds.
The variety can be a challenge, but Bringas does not teach alone – across the hall is a social worker, a psychiatrist, a registered nurse and a child and youth worker who are all part of the program.
If a student of has a psychotic episode, for example, Bringas can ask the social worker what may be going on in the student’s family, while Dr. Lemke can speak to the mental process going on.
With that knowledge, Bringas can tailor assignments about the issue – maybe a personal essay – that contributes to the student’s school credits and provides a therapeutic stepping stone at the same time.
At the end of 18 weeks, students in Building Bridges have three credits and a plan to transition into a public, Catholic, private or alternative school.
“This is like a last stop,” Bringas said. “It’s a whatever-it-takes mentality.”
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