Tommy has “suffered from varying degrees of anxiety probably most of their life,” says their mother, Ali. In fall 2021 as Tommy began Grade 8, their anxiety about attending school worsened and became severe enough that they refused to go in person or virtually.
“We were truly in a place of panic and crisis,” Ali recalls. “You feel like all eyes are on you, and every day they’re not in school is a day they’re not learning.”
Ali thinks various factors contributed to Tommy’s anxiousness about attending school, including intense unease in social situations, difficulty with staying organized and apprehension about being away from Ali and her husband, Jamie. “As a family we felt helpless, because we didn’t know how to help Tommy or where to turn.”
Tommy began seeing a psychologist who, fortunately, told the family about Building Bridges. The 18-week outpatient program provides a mix of therapy and personalized classroom instruction at Michael Garron Hospital for youth ages 12 to 17 whose mental health challenges prevent them from going to school.
Building Bridges is one of very few programs in Ontario to target the complex underlying factors behind school avoidance. The program team strives to give teens and their families the tools to manage mental health and ultimately succeed in a community school setting.
The Spinner family’s Building Bridges experience began last July with an introductory summer course ahead of the full-fledged 18-week program in the fall. Following their first summer class, Tommy “walked out a completely different kid,” Ali says. “It was the first time in eight months they’d attended any sort of organized class, and they enjoyed it and built an instant connection with the teacher.”
While there were ups and downs over the summer and the 18 weeks, Tommy made steady progress. Ali praises the program’s outstanding staff, including Claudine Burke and Mithusanaa Ramesh, both child and youth workers, Andrew Bringas, a Toronto Catholic District School Board teacher who supports the program, Peter Trainor, a social worker who provides counselling, and Dr. Krista Lemke, psychiatrist and medical director of child and adolescent mental health.
“They’re so specialized and in tune with what these kids are going through that they can really build rapport and trust with them and their families,” says Ali, adding that this paves the way for successful therapy and classroom learning.
Through individual and group therapy, Tommy gained skills to manage their anxiety, so as “to be able to participate in school and in life.” Family therapy, an important component of Building Bridges, helped Ali and Jamie better understand Tommy’s needs and communicate more effectively as a family. “That was very transformative,” she says.
Back on track
After earning four Grade 9 credits and completing Building Bridges in January, Tommy had a “very uneventful” return to a school in their community. It was exactly what Tommy and their parents were hoping for.
“We see the next couple of years as a time to let Tommy really focus on being able to learn from all of the fun and challenges that high school brings,” Ali says.
Out of immense gratitude for what they call a “life-changing” experience for their family, Ali and Jamie have donated and raised funds in support of the Building Bridges program at Michael Garron Hospital. They won’t soon forget its impact.
“It’s hard to even put it into words,” Ali says. “Building Bridges was able to catch us, help us, educate us and get us back on track as a family.”
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