Bell’s $10-Million Donation Hailed as Mental-Health Game-Changer

André Picard — Public Health Reporter
Last updated Thursday, May. 12, 2011 8:13AM EDT

An unprecedented $10-million corporate donation to the country’s largest psychiatric hospital is being hailed in a “tipping point” in the perception of
mental health in Canada.

On Wednesday, Bell Canada announced the gift to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, helping the CAMH Foundation exceed the $100-million target in what it described as the world’s largest fundraising campaign for mental health and addictions.

Darrell Gregersen, president and CEO of the CAMH Foundation, said that while those numbers are modest compared to huge hospital and university fundraising campaigns, they are unprecedented in the mental health field, which has long toiled in the shadows.

“This is bringing us into the modern world, the mainstream, in terms of fundraising,” she said.

“Beyond the money, this campaign is powerfully symbolic. It’s really powerful for patients to know that people believe there is hope,” Ms. Gregersen said.

CAMH is in the midst of a massive redevelopment that is transforming its archaic facilities on Queen Street in Toronto into a modern campus where clinicians, researchers and educators will work side-by-side with patients in a supportive environment.

The new facility will be the antithesis of the stereotypical hidden-away psychiatric hospital. It will have a storefront presence in downtown Toronto and
feature gardens, a state-of-the-art gymnasium, a spiritual care centre and a patient-run Out of this World Café.

The new corporate gift will pay for the Bell Gateway Building that will serve as the “front door” to the new campus.

George Cope, president and CEO of Bell and BCE Inc., said he hopes the large and visible donation will encourage others to follow suit.

“Mental health is an area that has not been supported by corporate Canada – for a variety of reasons,” he said in an interview. “We felt this was an area
where we could use our brand to make a difference.”

The CEO has also spoken publicly about his mother’s battle with depression and the impact of untreated mental illness on the workplace. It is estimated
that a single employee on short-term disability due to a mental illness can cost a company upward of $18,000. That immense economic toll, magnified through Canada’s work force, amounts to roughly $51-billion a year in costs and productivity loss.

Other companies like RBC, Great-West Life and Canada Post have also invested heavily in mental health in recent years.

Mary Deacon, chair of the Bell Mental Health Program and former president of the CAMH Foundation, said there has been a palpable shift in attitudes about mental health, both in corporate Canada and among the general public.

“Tipping point has become a bit of a cliché but that’s what happened: A number of factors came together to really shift the way people thought,” she said.

Those factors include growing evidence – and acceptance of the evidence – that psychiatric illnesses are due to chemical imbalances and are treatable; sold bold leadership like that of Michael Wilson, the former Finance Minister who spoke out about his son’s suicide; intense media coverage of the shortcomings of the mental health system and; now the involvement of corporate Canada.

Ms. Gregersen agreed with that analysis adding that the stigma about mental health is now falling away. “The public and corporate citizens like Bell are
saying mental health matters, brain research matters,” she said.

On Wednesday evening, for example, a who’s who of Canadian celebrity gathered for Unmasked, an eclectic evening of art and music whose proceeds go to the CAMH Foundation.

In September, the Bell said it would invest $50-million in mental health causes over four years.

In February the company launched a campaign entitled “Let’s Talk” to combat stigma surrounding mental health. It donated a nickel for every call and text
on a given day to community mental health groups – $3.3-million in total.

The CAMH gift is another element of the company’s mental health strategy. The next step, expected in the fall, will be to make large donations to mental
health research.

CAMH launched its Transforming Lives campaign in 2005 and it has now raised $108-million. Once the first phase of redevelopment is complete, there will be more emphasis on raising money for brain research.

The federal government has also vowed to invest $100-million in brain research over the next few years, and the Ontario government recently announced a $270-million investment in children’s mental health earlier this year.

“But this is really just a beginning,” Ms. Gregersen said. “Mental health has a lot of catching-up to do.”

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