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Psychiatric consultations through video conferencing, a form of mental-health support traditionally used to reach remote parts of the country, are being introduced in Toronto schools.

The Toronto District School Board is partnering with the Hospital for Sick Children to launch a telepsychiatry program that they hope will reduce referral waiting lists for mental, behavioural, social and learning issues.

"I have students who sit on the waiting list for over a year to get help," said Lisa Handiak, principal at Queen Alexandra Middle School, one of the schools that is being set up with video-conferencing equipment.

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"Now we'll be able to get help within two weeks. That's going to make a huge difference."

It is estimated that one in five students struggles with a mental-health issue such as anxiety or depression, but only one in six will get help, according to TDSB staff. Even students who get help may struggle to attend their hospital appointments without missing days of class.

Through the new program, a three-year pilot that will be reviewed for its efficacy, teachers will have direct access to more than 40 child psychiatrists within two to four weeks for non-emergencies, and within 72 hours in the most urgent cases.

Students will need a referral from a family physician in order to participate in a consultation.

In addition to one-on-one consultations, the video conferencing will enable groups of school staff to confer with medical professionals for the purposes of professional development.

The hospital is currently using telepsychiatry to reach patients in hospitals in Northern Ontario and Nunavut, but Tony Pignatiello, medical director of the Telelink Mental Health Program, said the new partnership will introduce the program into schools for the first time.

"Kids spend most of their day in schools so it's important for us to be there," he said. "It introduces a terrific opportunity for preventative care."

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Close to 65 consultations are expected to be completed this school year. Once the program is fully implemented, some time within the next three years, psychiatrists will be performing up to 125 consultations and eight professional development sessions.

In addition to Queen Alexandra, video-conference sites have been set up at three other schools – John Polanyi Collegiate Institute, George Webster Elementary School and Chester Le Junior Public School – and at two of the board's administrative buildings at 140 Borough Dr. and 1 Civic Centre Court.

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