Feb 07

By the time Fabeah Amaniampong graduated from high school near Toronto, she had lost faith in herself, her future and everyone around her.

Diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), psychosis and depression, she was so severely bullied in high school that her life became a lonely and isolated existence buoyed only by the support of her parents.

“I gave up trusting anyone at all,” Amaniampong, 18, says. “People were just stabbing me in the back. Even some people who tried to help me, I pushed them away. I just didn’t know what to do with my life.”

But today, trust and friendship have returned to Amaniampong’s life, courtesy of Redirection Through Education (RTE), Canada’s first and North America’s longest-running supported education program. Housed at Toronto’s George Brown College, the program has enrolled more than 150 students with persistent mental health and addiction issues annually since its launch in 1972. Larger and more holistic than similar programs such as Seneca College’s Work on Track in Toronto or the Mental Health Employment Program at Options Community Services in Surrey, B.C., RTE includes personal development courses, vocational guidance, skills development and college-credit academic courses in math, English and computer science.

For those who may have lost several years to mental illness, the program “is really a tremendous opportunity,” says Sean Kidd, a psychologist at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. “There aren’t many like it in North America. … They have tremendous success in helping people gain confidence and self-esteem.”

Those are exactly the results program co-ordinator Jaswant Kaur hopes to achieve. Although not every student completes all semesters, 50 per cent of those who did last year advanced to a post-secondary program, while others found work or are involved in additional personal development. The program also offers individual counselling to enrollees conducted by practicum students training in psychology and social work.

Once largely attended by older adults with depression, mood disorders and addiction issues, there has been a significant increase in younger students with serious mental health diagnoses of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and psychosis over the last five years, Kaur says. The shift “presents a very challenging situation for us, because students are actually struggling with symptom presentation in the classroom environment.”

The jump in the number of young people with serious mental health issues is being noted in other centres. “It is clear that mental health issues are more common” across Canada, says Dr. Allan Young, a mood disorders specialist and professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia. The reasons for the spike in numbers are unknown. “Is this because we’re picking it up better?” he says. “Or is mental ill health more common? Or [perhaps] we’re incorporating milder states into the rubric of illness.”

Alberta Health Services, to name just one agency, is seeking to help these youths and children with its Children’s Mental Health Action Plan, says Brian Malloy, executive director of Access and Early Intervention. Malloy says with the rise in mental ill-health diagnoses, social and cultural isolation in Alberta’s migrant worker population and the lack of services in remote communities, “children’s mental health is very much under-resourced. It was identified as a priority because … the more you use promotion, prevention and early intervention, you minimize the risk factors.”

With a focus on children affected by mood disorders, attention disorders, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, the province has implemented a 23-point plan, including a single point of access system with standardized screening aimed at reducing wait times and speeding access to services. “We have a good crisis service where we can see kids within 24 hours through a telephone consultation, a mobile service or an emergency room consult.”

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