An Incredible Learning Experience

By Ashton Hadwyn, Intern and Operations Coordinator at Fitness for Mental Health

On October 4th, 5th and 6th I had the opportunity to obtain some hands-on experience volunteering at the CAMH Education and Employment Fair, as well as a front row seat to see some great guest speakers at the Annual Medical Psychiatry Alliance Conference. Over the course of those three days, I learned a lot about the mental health field, and unfortunately some facts and figures that were truly shocking to see. In my blog post today I want to provide some insight as to what it was like to attend these events as a student, and share some of the stories that have stuck in my mind over the past week. 

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

Education and Employment Fair, Hosted by the Social Determinants of Health Department

I had such a positive experience volunteering at CAMH, and the opportunity to visit the Queen and Ossington hospital was a first for me.  As a group, we helped set up the vendor tables in the new gym, greeted industry guests, and served lunch in the old gym, which was across from their brand new, state-of-the-art Wellness Centre. What I loved most about this experience was the opportunity to connect with new people who share some common interests, but with this being my first time volunteering at an event like this, there was a lot to learn. We were busy assisting with registration for attendees, as well as setting up the nice complimentary food station for those participating in the lunch n’ learn. This is where I had the opportunity to hear the guest speaker, Mike Creek.

Mike Creek  

Director of Strategic Initiatives, Working for Change

When we first met, I had no idea who this guy was. He came in, sat down, and watched us set-up tables.  I thought that maybe he was our supervisor or something. Then, after we had completed our tasks and all of the volunteers were just standing around in silence, he spoke to us, saying that “it [was] so great that we [had] matched the blue table cloths with [his] clothes.” We laughed, and almost immediately afterwards the dynamic in the room shifted, and instead of everyone being quiet and staring at their shoes, we all started to talk among ourselves. It was that quick little comment that helped break the ice for the volunteers. I felt that it was very important because Mike could have just sat there and prepared for his speech, but instead he took the time to help us connect first.

Learnings from Mike Creek

Now, what he did may seem like a small detail to some, but this was something that he highlighted in his speech. “It’s the little things that people remember,” he said.  I can honestly say that I believe this to be true. He was definitely a great public speaker and fit well with the CAMH Fair. I have to admit that after seeing several guest speakers last week, what Mike said and did stayed with me.  “It’s the little things that people remember,” he said, and he also talked about how jobs are a great social environment for those suffering from mental illnesses. He explained to us that going to work and having  small interactions – even the smallest things like someone saying “good morning” or, “have you had your coffee today?” can be beneficial to those who might not have that type of social interaction on a daily basis. There were a lot of key learnings in his speech, but it was the “little things” that stood out for me, because he proved to us that it works.

Medical Psychiatry Annual Conference

On October 6th, Jodie and I attended the Medical Psychiatry Alliance’s Annual Conference. This was such an amazing opportunity for me to participate in; with so many professional Psychiatrists, Doctors and Community Activists coming together to talk about new approaches to both physical and mental health treatment. I have never been to a conference before, so it was such a great opportunity to gain this new experience. I learned a lot about what it’s like to live with a variety of mental illnesses, as well as hear from the medical professionals who are working so hard to understand it more deeply. This conference had a variety of workshops, and presentations, but there were three speakers in particular who stood out for me. These guest speakers were: Dr. John W. Newcomer, Professor of Integrated Medical Science, Dr. Suzanne Vogel-Scibilia, Clinical Psychiatrist, and Self-Diagnosed Patient and Dr. Belinda Lennox, Consultant Psychiatrist and Professor.

 Brief Lessons Learned from Dr. John W. Newcomer

The morning started off with a presentation from Dr. John W. Newcomer, who spoke to us about certain health risks are that are often incrementally more prevalent in people who are living with mental illness. Dr. Newcomer had many years of research to present, and what stood out for me was the overarching theme that people who are living with severe mental illness are often twice as likely (if not more likely) to smoke, to be obese and to have type 2 diabetes. Additionally, he believes that people living with severe mental illness are losing decades of their life compared to the general population. I found this to be very shocking, and somewhat saddening, and I hope that we can find a way to help improve these numbers in the future.

Dr. Newcomer displays a slide recommending healthy lifestyle intervention (i.e - FITNESS!) throughout all levels of care.

Brief Lessons Learned from Dr. Suzanne Vogel-Scibilia

Dr. Suzanne Vogel-Scibilia spoke after lunch, and I believe that her emphasis was on ending stigma. She has such an amazing story and I encourage anyone who is interested to read about and / or watch it. (Link below.)  She has experienced the mental health care system on both sides - as a patient, and as a clinician, and she has many funny stories to tell. Unfortunately, she has a lot of sad stories as well. She has faced stigma first hand, having been mistreated on the patient side of the system on several occasions - and on the clinician side, she has lost a few patients as well. What resonated with me were her “Two Steps.”

Step 1: Hope and positive expectation. To paraphrase her words, she spoke about the importance of finding the good in daily challenges, and to expect the best outcomes, rather than be fearful of the worst.

Step 2:  Deal with the naysayers. “Prove the bastards wrong, she said, "show them you can heal and come back better than ever.”

Brief Lessons Learned from Dr. Belinda Lennox

Dr. Belinda Lennox was the final speaker of the day – and she admittedly was the only thing standing between us and the Thanksgiving weekend. As a professional working in the UK, she had a different viewpoint than the North American speakers who spoke before her. What really stood out for me and Jodie (for obvious reasons) was when she emphasized that people who are living with mental illnesses tend to be less active than the general population. Similar to Dr. Newcomer’s presentation, there was a lot of research and data that accompanied her presentation, but the message that stayed with me was that people with mental illness don’t even come close to the recommended one hour of activity per day. She discussed ways that we can support clients and patients to be more active, and it was some positive reaffirmation that there is a huge need to support people with physical activity.

In Conclusion

Over the two days of volunteering, and the one-day conference, I learned so much about some of the daily challenges people face when living with mental illness. I also learned new treatment methods and theories on how to help resolve various symptoms, and fitness came up a lot.  It was also great to meet people who are connected to mental illness, in one way or another. Unfortunately, it’s very apparent that there is still a lot more work to be done. For me, it was a great opportunity to be out in the community and I look forward to more events in the future. I’m very proud to be working with Fitness for Mental Health, and to be working every day towards ending stigma.

Dr. Susanne Vogel-Scibilia at the Pease of Mind Conference in 2015: