Ten years or transforming lives

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The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) has just finished celebrating our first decade of existence. Our four founding organizations—the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry, the Queen Street Mental Health Centre, the Addiction Research Foundation and the Donwood Institute underwent an historic merger in 1998 to form a brand new teaching hospital fully affiliated with the University of Toronto, with myself as the founding CEO.

CAMH was one of the first organizations to bring mental health and addictions programming and services together. Today, this model is widely accepted. We were also unique in that we unified five significant mandates: specialized clinical care and a large research enterprise, with province-wide education, public policy development and health promotion. Right from the start we have been a new kind of hospital.

Anyone who has been through a hospital merger can tell you about the myriad of issues involved, but the combining of 2800 staff from differing corporate cultures is a challenge that CAMH is still working on more than a decade later. Our merger has been one of the successful ones, resulting, I am proud to say, in a ‘whole’ that is even greater than its component parts. More progress is promised as the integration of our component functions meshes more completely over time.

We started with a vision—to fully integrate our five mandates and advance the understanding, prevention and treatment of mental illness and addictions—creating a continuum from the research bench to the patient bedside, from the neuron to the neighbourhood. We envisioned the replacement of our outdated facilities on Queen Street West with a hospital for the 21st century that would support a new model of client care, embedded as a vital part of the community and free from the barriers of stigma.

Ten years later we were proud to see the first stage of our vision become a reality. In 2008 we opened the first four buildings of our ambitious, multiphase redevelopment project, called Transforming Lives Here, which will turn our 27-acre institutional Queen Street site—once the walled site of the provincial “Lunatic Asylum”—into a mixed-use urban village. State-of-the-art CAMH facilities will stand side-by-side with shops, businesses, residences and parks in this pedestrian-friendly new neighbourhood.

CAMH has certainly come a long way since 1998, when our Queen Street site had only 40 computers and one e-mail address for its 1,000 staff. Today we are introducing the Electronic Health Record, and going paperless in our new buildings.

Back in 1998, our tools for diagnosis and treatment were fairly blunt instruments; ten years later, CAMH scientists filed eight new patents for novel technologies, paving the way for new treatment approaches that match clients’ genetic and epigenetic makeup.

We inherited remnants of the ‘custodial’ model of care for psychiatric patients— a model that relied upon patient passivity and sometimes confinement. We have been leading a transition to a new, active ‘recovery’ model of care that is both client-centred and holistic, using an interprofessional staff team and best practice skills to build on the client’s strengths.

At the time of our merger, mental health and addiction issues were shrouded in stigma and a low public priority. Today, CAMH’s Senior Medical Advisor Dr. David Goldbloom serves as Vice-Chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, recently mandated to help address the issues of stigma and prejudice while raising public awareness and enhancing knowledge. Public perceptions are changing, thanks in part to our Foundation’s Transforming Lives awareness campaign.

Our first decade has given the CAMH community a great deal to be proud of. In 2008 we celebrated the announcement of the largest individual research grant in our history: $15 million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation to propel the understanding, intervention, treatment and prevention of mental illness and addiction to the next level of excellence. Our research program has doubled its scientific citations and tripled its external research funding, putting it among the world’s finest. Our staff are recognized as international leaders in the effects of the social determinants of health on mental well-being and recovery.

The completion of our first full decade isn’t a very long time in the scheme of things. In fact, from our point of view, it’s been just enough time for CAMH to lay the foundation for what we plan to accomplish over the next decade and beyond. With our exceptional staff, clients, families, board trustees, constituency members and partners—and the support of both the LHINS and the province—we are convinced that the next decade will be the one in which mental illness and addictions come out of the shadows, once and for all.