In Canada, we have many debates over what it means to have publicly-funded healthcare and what it means to be healthy. Outside the context of hospitals, Canadians spend thousands of dollars in order to acquire supplements, vitamins or miracle pills that will help them be skinnier, have bigger muscles or help them perform better.

Yet the one part of health they seldom think about is health of the mind. In recent years however, the idea of treating mental health has become more and more of an accepted and destigmatized practice. This acceptance was highly symbolized when the 2015 Pan Am torch came directly through the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), carried by the CEO of the hospital.

For the last six months, I’ve had the opportunity to work very closely with fellow CAMH staff and a variety of clients. Today’s CAMH symbolizes a tremendous evolution of how we treat mental health in Canada. Nevertheless, many without a background in mental health think of the current work at CAMH with the same antiquated lens that was prevalent in the 1850s, when it was known as the Provincial Lunatic Asylum and later as the Queen Street mental health facility, at 999 Queen Street West.

While the address has since changed to 1001, a large wall built by patients in the 19th century still runs around the grounds. When people generally think of clients (the word ‘client’ is preferable over ‘patient’) at CAMH for either short or long stays in one of the hospital’s many programs, they often recall images of people quietly murmuring to themselves while being escorted by big men in white suits, or being coddled and patronized by demonic Nurse Ratched-types.

 

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The Jesse Harris mural at CAMH above the patient-built wall 

I instead work in big, open spaces filled with clients working together on a variety of projects and sporting events, with similar scenes to those you would encounter at a university complex.

There is a wide variety of clients ranging in both age and the variety of care they need. By developing a community, even collegial atmosphere, clients have been given a critical support network to live ordinary lives. Not only do staff work together to help clients find the healthy lifestyles that they are looking for, but clients regularly support each other and discuss amongst themselves how their lives have changed.

The slogan for CAMH is “Transforming Lives,” and I have never been so lucky to work with such a dedicated group of people, whose sole goal is the betterment of others. They are working day in and day out with some of the most challenging addiction and mental health cases—cases that can later be used to help others find the road to recovery. 

This is what the modern CAMH is a place for breaking down stigma. It is a place of recovery and not a place of confinement.

From basic addictions, like cigarettes, to the complex mental illness program, everybody is there for help. If you have any mental health issues or addictions, talk to someone. If they recommend you to CAMH, do not hesitate to consider the suggestion to help break down stigma, and support an institution that transforms lives.

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