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Spotlight on the Mental Health and Addiction Nurse Program

student, teacher and counsellor

Reprinted from The Record. View this article on The Record website.

By: Johanna Weidner

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Makayla Schweitzer calls them "movie moments."

They're ordinary scenes of life seen so often on the big screen, like a family at the beach or a girl with her homework and books spread across her bed.

But they are moments that until recently were impossible for the Wellesley teenager.

For much of her young life, Makayla suffered with mental health issues that caused crippling anxiety in the most unremarkable situations.

She could only get through the day by following strict rituals — intense behaviours sparked by undiagnosed obsessive compulsive disorder. And her brother and parents were pulled into those routines.

"There were all kinds of rituals in the house that everybody had to follow," said nurse Kim Schnarr.

Schnarr helped the family turn the corner through a special program run by the Waterloo Wellington Community Care Access Centre. The mental health and addiction nurses program recently expanded to support more children and youth with mental illness.

Now referrals to the program can come from psychiatrists and pediatricians, along with hospitals and schools. Before, the focus was helping students settle back into the classroom after being hospitalized for mental health issues.

"I'd like to get the students before they're in crisis," Schnarr said.

It was during a crisis about a year ago when Schnarr first met Makayla. The teen had thoughts of suicide and was admitted to the mental health unit at Grand River Hospital.

Trouble started long before for Makayla, who was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and generalized anxiety when she was 8.

School became increasingly difficult. Teachers were concerned, and classmates harassed her. For years she didn't do any homework because she refused to bring her bag into the house, considered her clean haven. She had to shower immediately after getting home from school, and her hands were raw and bleeding from being washed so much.

"Her behaviour was very drastic," said her mother Jen Schweitzer. "Her behaviour didn't match what was happening."

When the family dog died in spring 2014, Makayla worsened and even getting her out of bed was tough.

"Makayla became depressed on top of it," Schweitzer said. "She kind of was a prisoner in the home."

Schweitzer looked everywhere for help for her daughter, but found little in the community. Even the hospital sent them home on their first visit to the emergency department.

"I was doing my best to get any kind of treatment," Schweitzer said. "No one really had anything to help us out."

She finally got an assessment in London and Makayla was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, but the medication wasn't helping. That's when Makayla told her mom about the suicide note she wrote, and finally she was admitted to hospital.

Makayla, who just turned 14, said she was worried at the time "my mind would trick me into doing something I didn't want to do."

Schnarr got the referral after that first hospital visit, and since then has been the family's rock through all the difficult times.

"Kim was with us through it all," Schweitzer said. "When I didn't know what to do, all I would do is call Kim."

After a five-day stay in hospital last fall, Makayla was sent home. But, Schnarr said, "nothing changed."

Suicidal thoughts were non-stop, and Makayla's parents had to be constantly vigilant. Schnarr contacted the doctor and Makayla was readmitted. That was the start of a long hospital stay, including a two-month stint in London that Makayla insisted on to get her "thoughts under control."

"I just wanted to stop thinking and just kind of relax," she said.

She worked diligently on that in hospital, and was finally able to go home in mid-December. Schnarr helped Makayla get settled in high school, and stops by when Makayla has a bad day. She found a psychologist who was a good match for Makayla, who continues counselling.

"They saved our family," father Marc Schweitzer said of the community care access centre.

"We helped them move forward," Schnarr said.

Makayla is making great strides. She went to a pool party with her class, saw a movie with friends for the first time, helps out on a farm and joined a martial arts class.

"I guess I'm kind of happy I can do more things," said the teen.

And she happily takes her beloved dog Marley outside to play, no longer worrying she'll run into people. It was goofy Marley who kept Makayla going when she struggled.

"When I was crying, she'd lick my face and wag her tail," she said.

While life is still an "ongoing battle," Schweitzer couldn't be happier to see her daughter flourishing and doing ordinary teenager things.

"It's pretty cool to see that your child is living," Schweitzer said.

Every night since she was small, Makayla had an elaborate bedtime ritual where she got tucked in and they had to repeat a set of phrases before she could go to sleep.

"And now?" Schweitzer asked her daughter.

"I go to bed when I want," Makayla said with a big grin.

jweidner@therecord.com , Twitter: @WeidnerRecord