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Chancellor Michael Wilson named chair of Mental Health Commission of Canada

(photo by Tim Fraser)

The University of Toronto’s 33rd chancellor, The Honourable Michael H. Wilson, has been appointed chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada. 

The long-time champion of mental health initiatives in Canada will replace outgoing chair Dr. David Goldbloom. A professor in U of T’s department of psychiatry and a pillar in the mental health community, Goldbloom has served as both chair and vice-chair of the commission since it was established nearly 10 years ago by the federal government.

Meric Gertler, president of U of T, said he was delighted by the appointment.
“Mr. Wilson is a powerful advocate, nationally and internationally, for mental health care, and has worked tirelessly to help reduce the stigma that so often prevents people with mental illness from seeking treatment,” said Gertler.  “These are matters of great importance to all members of our academic community, as well as to all Canadians. On behalf of the University of Toronto, I congratulate him on his appointment. 

“I would also like to take this opportunity to thank and congratulate Dr. David Goldbloom, professor in U of T’s department of psychiatry and a prominent member of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, for his outstanding service and accomplishments during his term as chair of the commission.”

Elected to the House of Commons in 1979, Wilson served as a senior cabinet minister between 1984 and 1993 and Canada’s ambassador to the United States from 2006 to 2009. He has been a leading proponent of mental health for nearly 20 years, working with such organizations as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), the Canadian Cancer Society, the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships, and the Canadian Coalition for Good Governance.  

In 2009, Wilson was instrumental in establishing the Cameron Parker Holcombe Wilson Chair in Depression Studies at U of T. The vice-chair of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and honorary chair of Brain Canada, Wilson has also received countless awards for his advocacy. 

After his new appointment was announced Wilson sat down with Michael Kennedy, who writes about health issues for U of T News

It’s been 15 years since you co-founded the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addictions and Mental Health. What kind of changes have you seen in the treatment and understanding of depression and mental health in Canada and around the world? 

When we got started with the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addictions and Mental Health there was very little awareness of mental health issues. I was speaking to a very senior executive of a large organization, for example, and I asked what his company was doing to address mental illness and addiction in the workplace. When he told me it wasn’t an issue I said, ‘Well that’s very interesting; you’re a statistical aberration as one in five people suffer from mental illness and others have an addiction.’ 

About a month later he called to apologize and said he hadn’t been aware of what was happening within his own company.  It was this lack of awareness that we were addressing with the roundtable. We wanted to make sure that people in senior executive positions knew what was going on and were taking an interest so that they could support their colleagues who were suffering. 

So, when we started, we needed to convey to people that there was work to be done; there was discrimination and an element of stigma in the workplace. People are still worried about talking to their boss about mental illness or addiction but it’s getting a lot better. People are more willing to go to their boss and say, ‘Look, I need time off and here’s the problem.’ 

What we’re trying to do with the Mental Health Commission Workplace Standard is make sure that people know what they can and should do when faced with mental illness. It’s no longer a question of awareness but rather doing the right job and making sure that people feel comfortable about talking about mental health. You wouldn’t think twice about calling your boss and saying, ‘I’ve got a bad cold today and I’m not able to come in to work.’ You know that’s not going to affect your job, but people still worry that if they say they have a mental illness it could cost them their livelihood. That’s changing but it’s still a struggle. 

What further changes do you hope to see?

The Mental Health Commission of Canada has done tremendous work on a wide range of issues addressing stigma, helping first responders and helping teachers understand and identify serious behavioural changes in students. A lot has happened in the good work that the commission has done. My observation is that we need to put an extra effort on getting our message out. Whether it’s in documents the commission has produced, seminars for people who are affected, advertising, or use of websites and social media – all of these play an important role in distributing our message. So I would put the emphasis on outreach efforts at this stage rather than producing more good work. They’ve done some excellent work – now we’ve got to hear about it. 

You’ve been a strong supporter of research in this area and helped established the Cameron Parker Holcombe Wilson Chair in Depression Studies here at U of T. What are the research areas you find most hopeful?

There are a couple of areas I’m very excited about and one is genetics. Dr. Jim Kennedy is doing some very promising work using DNA to narrow the search for effective antidepressants.

Dr. Kennedy can use a subject’s saliva sample to create their genetic makeup, which is then used to provide guidance on what the best medication will be – personalized medicine. In many instances, people with mental illness will cycle through five different medications before finding the most effective drug. It’s a lengthy trial-and-error procedure which takes time and means the patient is often exposed to the unpleasant side-effects that can accompany these drugs, which may lead them to stop taking the medication.  Dr. Kennedy’s work has allowed doctors to narrow that search. 

As our diagnostic equipment has become more sophisticated, Kennedy’s research is now being used to narrow a patient’s diagnosis.  Sometimes psychiatrists know something is wrong with an individual but they’re not quite sure exactly what it is. When you tie what Dr. Kennedy is doing with some of the neuro-imaging research at CAMH, doctors are able to see exactly how and where a medication is working in the brain. 

The Temerty Centre at CAMH is researching new treatments for a persistent type of depression that doesn’t respond well to medications.  Doctors are using a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a non-invasive therapy, to stimulate small regions involved with depression. An electromagnetic field generator, or coil, is placed near the patient’s head and, once activated, the electric currents stimulate regions in the brain responsible for mood control and depression. 

2015 will mark 20 years since the death of your son by suicide.  It isn’t easy to talk about grief and loss but can you tell us a little about him – what he was like?

Cameron loved sports. He was a good hockey, rugby and football player. He played hard and I think it helped him to be successful. I don’t think I’d ever characterize him as being a great student, but he loved sports. He made lots of friends, probably more than he realized. The turnout of his friends at his funeral was overwhelming. The funeral was in Toronto but a number of his friends came down from Ottawa, people that he’d grown up with, and a number of them said to me ‘if only we had known Cameron was suffering, we would have done everything we could to help.’

As he grew older, closer to the time when he died, he had a hard time with relationships because he got to be short-tempered and it ended up costing him his job. That was an indication to us that something was wrong – we weren’t sure what but he clearly wasn’t the fun-loving guy we knew when he was growing up.  

In this country, Miriam Toews’ heartrending All My Puny Sorrows is not just an award-winning literary work but also a bestseller. And sports heroes such as Clara Hughes have helped us talk openly about the effects of depression. But how well do Canadians do when it comes to accommodating depression and mental illness in the workplace – or accepting those who seek treatment?

I think people are dealing with mental illness better, but there’s a vast difference between how organizations support their employees. Royal Bank and Bell Canada have been terrific. Royal Bank profiled staff members in their company bulletin who were living with depression and taking medication. They were holding on to their job, were holding on to senior jobs, and it sent some very good messages to people who were worried about talking about their mental illness. Employees realized they could speak openly once they saw people within the organization who had discussed their illness in a public forum and kept their job – they don’t automatically get fired because they have a mental illness or an addiction problem.  That did a great job sending the right message to people within the organization who were having difficulties. 

Bell Canada’s #LetsTalk campaign is a very important initiative and a great example of an organization affecting change in the mental health field. It has opened the lines of communication and made the work environment a more welcoming and accepting place. The campaign has raised a lot of money for mental health and by doing so, it has raised awareness and given people a sense of, ‘Well, we can talk about this’ and that’s an important part of overcoming the stigma. 

But there may be other organizations where it’s not nearly as easy to open up about being directly affected by mental illness. I think we’re doing a lot better but we’ve got to do more. 

There’s a generational element to this as well – younger people are more likely to talk about their illness. I met with a group of 40 young people at U of T who wanted to talk about what I had done in my career. During the discussion I mentioned my mental health work in passing and moved on to talk about other aspects of my career. But the students came back to my reference to mental health and wanted to discuss it further. About half a dozen of them talked openly about their own mental illness and one of them said, ‘Look, if anybody in this room has trouble, come and see me because I’ve gone through it all and may be able to help you.’ It was a very healthy, open conversation.

You’ve said that, one way or another, mental illness affects us all. Can you elaborate on that?

It affects us all in that the statistic is one out of five will suffer from a mental illness at some time during their life. But it’s not just the one; it’s the family of the one, and the friends of the one, who are also going to be affected.  Mental illness affects rich people, poor people, successful people, not so successful people – it doesn’t discriminate. So when you think of the number of people, I would say it’s the most pervasive illness. It’s a chronic illness in many ways because it’s something that you live with. 

Mental illness is a very pervasive and costly disorder. I mentioned the ubiquitous nature of mental illness but we need to remember that it’s also a very costly disorder. When people have to take time off work it impacts productivity and short term disability insurance. So someone may not be directly affected by a mental health disorder but because of these broader implications you can see how mental illness affects us all.