Colin Stainton is a whip-smart 11-year-old who likes mathematics and computers. An avid reader, he polished off The Hunger Games trilogy in a single weekend, and is plowing through another fantasy series, The Seventh Tower.
For much of his life, he was prone to outbursts of anger that caused him to get into fights with children at school and fall behind in his studies.
Searching for a solution, his mother, Cheryl Marsh, enrolled him in a program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. The group sessions helped Colin learn to control his temper and talk through problems.
"It was pretty cool," he says of the program. "The workers really do want to help you, they know what it's like to go through this."
CAMH aims to help a lot more kids like Colin with a $10-million donation to expand and better co-ordinate services for children and youth. Among other things, the money will help the hospital hire more specialists in the field, create a new crisis intervention team for young people who come to the emergency department, and set up an inpatient unit for youth with both mental illness and addictions.
The donor is child advocate Margaret McCain, a former lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick and co-author of three major studies on early childhood learning for Queen's Park. Thanks to the money, CAMH can set up a dedicated centre to pull programs together into one place and co-ordinate with other groups.
"There needs to be a large umbrella organization that connects the dots," Ms. McCain said. "One place for new evidence and research for community agencies."
Mental health issues facing children are many, ranging from autism to conduct and behavioural disorders. Most important, Ms. McCain said, is the family environment.
The majority of people who have mental illnesses as adults show warning signs earlier in life, making it crucial to intervene when they are young, CAMH CEO Catherine Zahn said.
"To invest in children always has the greatest impact, in the opinion of many," she said.
For Colin, that investment involved a weekly session with CAMH workers and other children. He learned how to deal with problems – whether disagreements with other kids or tough school assignments – without resorting to violence. Ms. Marsh, meanwhile, met with the other parents and learned strategies for working with her son, including how to set rules and follow through on discipline.
She's noticed a change: Colin's school work has improved and he's made friends.
The familial closeness is evident at the family's Toronto home, where Colin cheerily helps his sister feed a neighbourhood cat and jokes around with his mother.
"He's less aggressive," said his sister Marie, 14. "When you ask him to do something, it doesn't take multiple times, it takes one time."
The program has also given the articulate boy a philosophy on life.
"If life throws you a low ball," he said, "you've just got to hit it."