Celebrating recovery and eroding stigma

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For 19-year-old Cassandra Arthur, now an outpatient at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), feeling part of a community has played a big role in her recovery. “The thing I like most is the constant communication and community building,” she explained. “It feels like a safe place to talk about my journey and for the first time I feel like I’m getting the help I’ve been looking for.”

In mental health care environments, the positive impact of fostering a sense of community can be significant. When patients feel they are respected, valued, and a part of something bigger than themselves, they make purposeful strides towards recovery. “When clients feel they are valued and appreciated, they will often become more engaged,” said Bronwen Sims, a Peer Support Worker at CAMH.

An example of community building in action comes from the Suits Me Fine fashion show at CAMH. The Suits Me Fine boutique, which has been providing CAMH clients with complimentary clothes and toiletries for 20 years, hosts the event annually. After a day of preparing with hair, makeup, and wardrobe, CAMH clients take the stage to show off their favourite outfits to a crowd of cheering supporters.

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Speaking about the boutique, John Vespa, Director, Human Resources, Clinical Programs and Volunteer Resources at CAMH, says the purpose is to provide clients who may be marginalized because of their illness with a genuine social experience. “They’re able to acquire the clothing they need to go off on job interviews; they gain confidence; they feel good,” he said. “The clothes coupled with the positive social interaction helps them on the road to recovery.”

A dream come true

This year, and for the first time, Cassandra took part in the event. “This has been an amazing experience – I’ve never done anything like this before,” she said. “I’m usually really shy and anxious, but knowing that I’m doing this with such a supportive group makes me feel much more comfortable getting up in front of the crowd.”

Unable to attend her high school prom due to mental-health-related hospitalization, it was a dream come true for Cassandra to wear a dress and celebrate with such a compassionate group. “It was scary, but seeing everyone cheering and smiling really filled my heart,” she said as she exited the stage this spring.

Breaking down stigma

In addition to promoting recovery, these positive social interactions foster acceptance and understanding. In Canada, 42 per cent of people are unsure whether they would socialize with a friend who has mental illness. This is of course a contributing factor to the shrinking, but pervasive stigma that surrounds mental illness. The beauty of the Suits Me Fine fashion show and other events like it, are that they bring people with and without mental health issues together in a supportive environment, and in the process, break down the stigma that surrounds mental illness.

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Matt Tsuda, an Occupational Therapist at CAMH, said he thinks the fashion show does “…a great job of celebrating diversity, social inclusion and showcasing individuals who are proud of who they are despite the issues and challenges they have faced.”

The host of this year’s fashion show and cohost of CTV’s Canada AM, Marci Ien, applauded Suits Me Fine, CAMH, and the participating clients for exemplifying the “will, power, courage, and fortitude” to de-stigmatize mental illness and promote recovery. “I applaud [CAMH clients] for working towards getting better and for looking fabulous along the way!”