The Mental Health Commission and Beyond

The Mental Health Commission and Beyond

noticeboard with pictures
Taking Control and Telling Another Story: GSEI Storyboard of Evolution of Mental Health.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada is a make-work project for consultants, researchers, academia and the hospitality industry. It produces and promotes much knowledge, but how this knowledge trickles down to positively affect the rest us is another thing. It is in essence another world. For example, New Brunswick has about 2000 people in its activity center network, but if you were to ask these people, “What has the Mental Health Commission done for you? I don’t think the reply would have much impact. – Eugène

The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) is a ten-year national project mandated to improve the mental health system and reshape public attitudes and behaviors regarding mental health. Eugène has been part of The Hallway Group which acts as a consumer/survivor advisory council to the commission on topics solely related to stigma. Arguing that the commission is mainly a protectorate of corporate bio-pharmaceuticals, Eugène believes that it prefers individual stories than collective advocacy that goes against the mainstream narrative on mental health issues.

man talking in front of a group of people at tables
Nérée at Groupe de Support Émotionnel book launch

For the first four years of the Commission, Nérée was appointed as a member of the Family and Friends Committee. Nérée thinks that the commission is a privileged system with a lot of political and professional visibility. For a while he was happy and proud to be part of one of the eight standing committees of the commission. However, he says that work of his committee, which was comprised of family members, was practically disregarded.  He believes that eventually the MHCC regretted appointing him after a full-page article appeared in the National Post, questioning why Nérée, with his critique of mental health systems, was part of the commission.  According to Nérée, the MHCC work on homelessness and housing was good work, but it cost a lot of money to determine something that had been well-demonstrated in research for the past 30 years: When homeless people have a home, they are better off.

Eugène and Nérée have a strong shared critique of mental health systems and policies and yet have managed to not burn too many bridges in the course of their work. Nonetheless, their radical perspective can sometimes lead them to feel marginalized. Eugène notes:

I often feel that I’m in a war room all by myself, trying to be a good tactician and trying to survive. As I get older, I have more clarity and more strength in my views about mental health. I meet a lot of people who support me being in the war room, but few of them want to come inside. Those who do don’t last because they criticize people rather than criticizing ideologies and values.” – Eugène

man speaking to group of people sitting at tables
Eugène at Groupe de Support Émotionnel book launch

In New Brunswick, Eugène’s analytical stance is much less common and therefore more isolating than it would be in Toronto or Montreal. Nérée compares Eugène’s story to that of Richard Bach’s story Jonathan Livingston Seagull, noting that an individual will often feel alone in what they are thinking and saying for a long time before s/he meets like-minded people. Such isolation and exclusion can create “shocks” that make temporary retreats necessary, but eventually people with common perspectives will find one another and a movement will emerge:

How do you change the whole system?  Our Voice/ Notre Voix and Eugène are living proof that change can happen. But it’s a long [haul]. In 1987 if we had raised our fists and taken out the “guns,” we’d be dead ourselves probably or gone shortly after. But there was this model of incremental or developmental change that was used. The vision doesn’t change, except that it’s sharper now than it was at that time, because Eugène and I, we both know more about the politics of these things than we knew then. – Nérée

Nérée didn’t initially agree with the name of GSEI or the “ear” logo of OVNV. He thought that the logo should have been a fist and wanted both the group and the newsletter to be more militant. He kept quiet at the time, feeling that it wasn’t his decision to make. Now, he argues that if they had gone with the more militant name and approach he favoured, the organization and publication may not have survived.

Eugène, too, has learned about the art of diplomacy and respectful disagreement.

Our Voice is a way of conveying experiences…. A common error of those who lead the mainstream mental health system is that they think we’re in the business of agreeing. We’re not in the business of agreeing, we’re in the business of conveying experiences and if those experiences are good, that’s a plus. If those experiences are not good, it’s an opportunity to pause and change. – Eugène

Describing an illustration of diplomatic disagreement, Eugène talked about being asked to introduce the provincial minister of health at a 1989 event. Two days before the event was to take place, Eugène received a letter saying that the GSEI program was being cut. Rather than embarrassing the minister in a speech condemning this action, he instead gave the speech he originally intended, but wrote a letter to the minister a few days later, copying everyone who had been in the room. His tactic worked and funding was restored.

Both Eugène and Nérée feel that it’s not just the system that needs to change for mental health provision in Canada, and the world, to be adequate. Rather, all of society needs to change.

In Eugène’s words:

One thing I’ve learned…is that this whole business of mental health is more than just medication, diagnosis, psychiatry. Really, what mental health is about is how you organize your village, your town, your city, your province, your country. In the absence of progressive social and economic planning, you have lots of stress, a lot of issues. Really, I see good mental health as those who work on a social level to create a better outcomes for people. I suppose that’s what I’ve tried to do on a very small and humble scale. I’ve tried to organize my little community in a way that if it was replicated over and over and over again, it could perhaps achieve some valuable results. – Eugène

Nérée adds:

This formula of working together for a common cause can demonstrate to professionals that they should work WITH people, accept their priorities and the directions they choose, rather than being leaders that treat them as clients or patients, not so smart because of their lack of formal education or social status. Like Eugène, many ex-psychiatric people have lots of wisdom and much to offer if given some room to breathe. This experience demonstrates that we, professionals, have to change and adapt if we want a real mental health system that is attentive to people and their potential and not just to disease. -Nérée