Former senator Michael Kirby saluted for mental health work
August 13, 2010. By Valerie Fortney, Calgary Herald
Like millions of other Canadians, Michael Kirby has first-hand knowledge of the toll mental illness takes on an individual, and his or her loved ones.
“My sister suffered from serious depression all her life,” he says. “She had anorexia as well. She was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward and attempted suicide at one point.”
Unlike many of his fellow citizens, though, Kirby isn’t reticent about his family’s experiences.
“People suffering from mental illness don’t want to talk about it,” he says, his comment backed up with the fact that approximately 75 per cent of adolescents and adults who experience mental illness never seek help. “Many of them feel there is still a stigma.”
Not only has Kirby been willing to talk about it, he’s spent the past decade of his life doing something about it. The chairman of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, established in 2007 and headquartered here in Calgary, has been instrumental in bringing greater awareness of mental health issues to the Canadian public, along with helping to diminish the discrimination and stigma experienced by its sufferers.
He’s done such a good job, in fact, Kirby has been awarded this year’s medal of honour by the Canadian Medical Association, the highest honour bestowed upon a citizen who is not a member of the medical profession.
While his curriculum vitae includes everything from consulting to the energy and utilities industries and the financial sector, the Nova Scotia native is best known in political circles as a longtime adviser to former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, followed by more than two decades as a Liberal senator.
It was in the Senate that his passion for advocating on behalf of the mentally ill took flight. As chairman of the standing Senate committee on social affairs, science and technology, he was charged in 2001 with developing a federal health policy able to support a long-term health care plan.
“We realized something needed to be done about mental illness,” he says. “In report after report on the state of the health-care system, it was barely mentioned.”
The committee published a series of reports culminating with its final report in 2006, entitled Out of the Shadows At Last, which recommended the formation of an arms-length commission that would deal with the issue of mental illness “in a way that would create some kind of national focal point.”
The decision to base the Mental Health Commission of Canada in Calgary, he insists, wasn’t a political one, as some critics at the time suggested.
“As a Maritimer, I felt we should have the commission located somewhere outside of Central Canada,” he says. “Maritimers understand the feeling of being ignored, as the West often feels. In this day and age, national institutions should be all over the country.”
Calgary being his favourite western city was another impetus for stationing the bulk of his approximately 50 researchers and advocates in this city. Its original mandate, he says, was three-pronged: run an anti-stigma program to change public attitudes; conduct a first-ever national mental health strategy; and set up a knowledge exchange centre, with the two latter programs run out of Calgary.
Over the past three years, little has been documented in the press about the work of a commission dedicated to tackling mental health issues in a city that is the largest centre in Canada without a dedicated psychiatric hospital.
It’s a situation Kirby — who, while based out of Ottawa, spends “thousands of hours in the air” shuttling between the Calgary headquarters and smaller Ottawa office of the commission — is confident his organization will, if not directly, impact with its work.
“The problem isn’t unique to Calgary,” he says. “Our role has been, and will continue to be, to look at all aspects of mental health and how it’s addressed by the federal and provincial governments.”
Kirby is rightfully proud of the strides he’s made in an area he admits he was “shocked and saddened” by when he became involved nearly a decade ago. But he sees his greatest accomplishment in fighting discrimination and stigma for those suffering from mental illness.
“My sister went on to have a successful life, she got a master’s degree and worked with others with mental illness,” he says of his sibling, who passed away a few years ago from cancer.
“If people get the right help, there is hope. But you can’t even get started if people aren’t willing to talk about it. Once we take away the stigma, we can begin the work.”