Easing the transition from an adolescent day hospital program to high school

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Imagine you are a 16 year old student struggling with mental illness – the thought of going to school every morning is something you dread. Your school has tried to help, but ultimately, it lacks the resources to provide you with what you need. This scenario is faced by a number of youth on a daily basis and the reality is that some of them stop attending school altogether.

In response to the need for a better way to help serve this patient population, the child and adolescent services team at Markham Stouffville Hospital (MSH) developed the A.T.L.A.S program (Adolescent Treatment and Learning Alternative Service) to meet the unique needs of these patients.

A.T.L.A.S is an adolescent day hospital program that runs during school hours from 9 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. for youth with severe anxiety and/or depression. The program is set to open this fall and will provide patients with a positive academic experience together with therapeutic support to help them work to overcome their emotional difficulties. The program is geared towards patients between the ages of 12 and 19 who have been referred by a doctor.

The hospital has a number of community partners contributing to the comprehensive program being offered. The program’s main partner is York Region District School Board (YRDSB). MSH is also fortunate to have access to resources at the Cornell Community Centre, including a library and a gym, through a linked walkway.

A.T.L.A.S integrates group therapy, academics and physical education. The ultimate goal of the program is to help patients learn to manage their symptoms, return to their schools, and cope with the daily demands of their academic, social, and family lives.

There are a number of day hospital programs within the Greater Toronto Area and York Region. What are the strengths of the A.T.L.A.S program at MSH and what makes it different?

Firstly, the program offers a graduated approach to transitioning patients back to the regular school system. The strategy focuses on starting the integration into the community from the beginning of a patient’s experience. Each day begins at the Cornell Community Centre where patients will work to complete a physical education credit by participating in activities in the centre’s gym and a weekly yoga class in the sensory room.

Patients will also have the opportunity to attend youth groups open to all Markham teens at the Cornell Community Centre Library. The groups will focus on topics of interest to teens such as the real deal on going to university, saving up for your first car, and cooking quick and easy meals. This aspect of the program helps reorient patients to the kind of group discussion experienced in school classrooms and provides an opportunity for informal communication with peers.

“Having patients participate in youth group activities as well as gym in the community centre increases the likelihood that they will carry on these activities once they have returned to life beyond day hospital,” says Dr. Jessica Cooperman, psychologist with the program. “And by also focusing on the link between mind and body, we can achieve greater results through physical education and yoga, ultimately helping our patients achieve better overall health – both mental and physical.”

Secondly, the program has a strong partnership with YRDSB in which the school board provides two dedicated teachers who will work with patients to help them achieve school credits while they are in the A.T.L.A.S program.

Patients will have the opportunity to achieve a physical education credit through the partnership with Cornell Community Centre and other credits through use of the A.T.L.A.S computer lab and classroom.

Thirdly, there is a focus on working not only with patients, but also with patients’ parents. The A.T.L.A.S program includes family therapy as well as a mandatory weekly counseling group for parents to help equip them with the skills to best support their teens in transitioning back to school.

Finally, the program goes beyond the transition back to school. The A.T.L.A.S program doesn’t simply end when patients transition back to their regular schools. Patients are integrated into the student volunteer program at the hospital during their time in the A.T.L.A.S program, enabling them to earn volunteer hours towards their school requirements. Further, once patients transition back to school, they will be encouraged to continue participating in the volunteer program as well as the other after-school activities co-ordinated by program staff.

“This program is very important for our community,” says Dr. Cooperman. “Until now, we haven’t had the in-house resources to fully address the needs of youth with this level of severity of symptoms. Having the A.T.L.A.S program right here at the hospital is going to make integrating these youth back to the outpatient program and ultimately, back into the community, a more seamless process.”

For more information about the A.T.L.A.S program at MSH, please contact Dr. Jessica Cooperman at JCooperman@msh.on.ca .