“I’ve been waiting for this day for a really long time.”
Eighteen-year-old Chelsea Leger-Watt says these words just after her high school graduation. She smiles a lot the day of the ceremony, wearing a sleeveless blue and white dress, her hair streaked with jets of pinky-purple. Her cheerful appearance gives no indication of the struggles she faced to get here. For Chelsea and her classmates, high school graduation is a dream they weren’t sure they’d reach.
“I was really suicidal. I was really depressed. I just felt like I was different than other people. I couldn’t deal with things properly. Things would consume me, one thing would happen and it would just consume my life. I would be bedridden. I couldn’t deal with my emotions properly. I was angry, sad. I had really bad relationships.”
Chelsea first came to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) through the emergency department last June and eventually ended up in CAMH’s R.E.A.C.H. program — a day treatment program that falls under the Youth Addictions and Concurrent Disorders Service. It’s offered to young people aged 14 to 21 years old to earn secondary school credits while participating in treatment for mental health concerns and/or substance dependence issues.
Chelsea’s classmate, 18-year-oldAidan Crump, is another 2014 graduate. He stands out in the group, tall with bright blue hair he dyed the night before, wearing a bow tie and sparkly platform boots.
“It’s just a huge milestone for me because a year ago I didn’t see myself graduating. I was just really depressed and suicidal. I just couldn’t deal with it anymore,” says Aidan. He spent two months as an inpatient client at CAMH after experiencing cannabis-induced psychosis. He also struggled with an eating disorder. “It was really difficult. There were times I didn’t get out of bed. Before I went to sleep sometimes I would pray that I would die in my sleep.” He joined the R.E.A.C.H. program a year ago.
For both teens, R.E.A.C.H. represented a turnaround point. Through the program, young people work with teachers, social workers and other CAMH staff. Classrooms are small, no more than eight students per class. The students work very closely with CAMH staff to manage not only their struggles with mental illness and substance dependence, but also the often painful journey of adolescence.
Chelsea, who was chronically absent from school previously, felt the difference. “Coming here at first I showed up most days, but then it got to a point where I started showing up every day or I’d be a bit late but I’d still come in. I felt more comfortable coming in. If I didn’t do something, an assignment or something, there would be consequences but you would be allowed to have your space and they would understand why you didn’t have it done.”
“It’s nice to come to a program that even though you have different struggles you still connect the same way, you can share your stories. There’s no judgment for the most part,” adds Aidan.
Chelsea and Aidan’s graduation from R.E.A.C.H. was held in mid June in the Sacred Space in the Bell Gateway Building. The number of teachers, social workers and family vastly outnumbered the four students being celebrated. Three of those students earned their high school diploma through the R.E.A.C.H. program this year, including Chelsea and Aidan.
The closeness of the group played a huge role in their journey.Their struggles brought them closer together, something nearly all the adults working with them spoke about during the graduation ceremony. Michelle Molliganis a child and youth worker with CAMH’s Youth Addictions and Concurrent Disorders Service. “It’s been a lot of fun, it’s been really hard, it’s been a lot of growth. The biggest challenges we faced together are relationships and I think that’s been the biggest part. We have a rule, don’t hang out outside the program. That went out the door I think five days after we started.”
Their bond was clear when Aidan and his classmate Shannie Hansa went up to speak in front of so many who had supported their journey. After Shannie trailed off crying, Aidan picked up where she left off, struggling through his own tears. “We have been through a lot and it’s been really good to get to know the new students that have come and the new staff that have come and I’ve just been…I never would have gotten to this place without my family and the team so I just want to say thank you.”
Raju Bains is the manager of Youth Addictions and Concurrent Disorders Service. She also spoke at the graduation. “At CAMH we say that everybody here is a teacher and everybody here is a student. This is what the R.E.A.C.H. classroom exemplifies every day. There certainly have been some days that you have taught us and other days where we might have taught you a thing or two, but we’re always learning from each other. This brings me to the Youth Addictions team and our teachers — today would also not be possible without all of your hard work, passion and dedication to the youth in our program.”
Each teen received academic and treatment awards for their own skills and talents. Chelsea won awards for “being insightful and reflective” as well as the creative writing award. Aidan was recognized for “passion, understanding and empathy amongst his peers” as well as getting the creative craft master award.
Now that her time with the R.E.A.C.H. program has ended, Chelsea is focusing her attention on her future, her ambitions high. She’s been accepted into the University of Toronto life sciences program. “Eventually I want to get my PhD in psychology, but first I’m going to do a major in mental health studies with a double minor in linguistics and environmental sciences.”
Aidan’s looking forward to his own path. “I’m going to take a year off to work just to find what I really, really want to do for college because I’ve been toying with a few ideas”. He’s got a lot of choices ahead and wants to do work with a youth queer community group, as well as work with animals and study special effects makeup.
Marilena Diaconuis a teacher with the Toronto District School Board working in the R.E.A.C.H. program who provided one last math lesson to the graduates at the ceremony. “E plus R equals O. Event plus Reaction equals Outcome. The event itself doesn’t do anything, you have to react positively to have a good result.”