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Editorial: A Fresh Perspective on Community Mental Health

By Lorne Zon
Network, Spring 2011

One thing that age has brought me — besides grey hair — is perspective. With 36 years of experience in the health care system, more often than not I am finding that it isn’t déjà vu that I am experiencing but rather I really did live it before. As we look back at the evolution of our mental health system, it is often hard to focus on the real changes that have occurred. On the surface it appears that much is the same. Stigma and discrimination are ongoing. Wait times and service access are not what they should be. Funding, well, enough said.

From 1999 to 2007, I was only peripherally involved with the mental health and addiction sectors. When I joined CMHA Ontario and renewed my involvement, I was actually quite amazed at some of the changes that I encountered. Fresh eyes brought fresh perspective. As this edition ofNetwork attempts to chronicle some of the changes that have occurred over the past number of years, I wanted to share some of the surprises — pleasant surprises — that I have encountered. The insights are personal. While some may be borne out by research, I make no claim to be evidence-based or to reflect “best practice.” However, I believe what I have seen is of great value to us as a guide as we enter the next phase of reforming and transforming the mental health and addictions system.

One insight that comes to my mind is best described as maturity. I don’t mean the greyness that my maturity has brought me but rather the notions of wisdom, development, experience and sensibleness. My last foray into mental health and addiction reform was in the 1990s. I remember my key contribution as “shuttle diplomacy.” In one room were the addiction service providers, in another the mental health providers and in the third, consumer advocates (consumer/survivors). Bringing everyone together was, to be kind, counterproductive. Today we work together in a natural and collegial manner. To do otherwise would seem unproductive.

A second insight regarding maturity is about mutual respect. As the needs of consumers and their families have taken a more central focus and as recovery has become the central theme for moving forward, the openness of dialogue and the ability to see and listen to each other as we seek common solutions is much different. For me it brings a renewed feeling of hope and potential.

The final comment I will make on maturity relates to our community health service providers. As a health services manager, my days in the hospital sector meant big budgets and large staff. Yes, there were certainly many challenges to be faced to provide coordinated, high-quality care. One of my first responsibilities as the new CEO at CMHA Ontario was do site visits and learn about our branches and their work. I was astounded at the way each branch had built a mini-system for their clients by piecing together funding and programs that were neither designed nor funded to work as a whole. It was a management challenge greater than I had faced. It showed real innovation and determination. If we wish to study value-for-money, we need not look any further.

To paraphrase Robert Frost, “We have miles to go before we sleep,” but let’s not forget, “We’ve come a long way, baby!”

Lorne Zon is the chief executive officer of CMHA Ontario.

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