Schizophrenia survivor and activist Linda Chamberlain honoured at CAMH: Porter

Schizophrenia survivor and activist Linda Chamberlain honoured at CAMH: Porter

Catherine Porter

Apr 05 2013

Linda Chamberlain waits for the unveiling of a new plaque celebrating her achievements. It now adorns a wall at the Centre for Mental Health and Addiction.

Have you gone for lunch at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health lately?

You should. Check out the sleek glass-and-brick buildings, the new tree-lined streets, the parks and café. Partway through its redevelopment, the hospital has transformed from a dark, creepy institution into a bright, inviting campus.

I visited twice this week. The first time was for a tribute to a former patient/staff member. I was so impressed by what I saw, I returned the next day for a tour.

Diana Capponi was my guide.

She runs the hospital’s “employment works” program, which recruits former mental health and addiction patients to work on staff as housekeepers, pharmacists, research analysts, psychologists . . .

She is a chain-smoking, straight-talking force of change here. As the new posh buildings have gone up, she’s been hammering and sawing away at the culture inside them, trying to beautify it for “crazies” like her.

She was a patient here 30-odd years ago.

“I was a human garbage can for years,” she says. “I spent five months here. I was locked up for at least a month of it.”

The tour started in the new Bell Gateway Building, the hospital’s hub. A few years ago, you’d have to yell at someone through a hole in a Plexiglas wall to get service. Now, there’s a hospital greeter with a giant “ask me” button as well as a concierge at a wooden desk to take your questions.

“It’s about respect,” says Capponi, 60. “If we won’t show physical respect to people, how can you expect clinicians and staff to show them respect?”

She tells me a story about the greeters. They were born out of the hospital’s decision to go smoke-free three years ago. That caused some serious anxiety among patients for whom smoking is a rare pleasure in an otherwise bleak day, Capponi says.

A plan was hatched to hire security guards to enforce the new rules. Can you imagine? Capponi proposed the administration hire former patients instead. The “Clean Air Ambassadors” wouldn’t just ask patients to butt out, they’d greet them, give directions, remind them to seek shade in summer and pull on their jacket in winter.

They were so popular, they became a permanent fixture. “This past summer, there was a guy sleeping over on the sidewalk early in the morning,” Capponi says. “I witnessed three staff stop him to make sure he was okay. That wouldn’t have happened three years ago. People would have just walked over him.”

Much of the new campus is named after donors. There’s the McCain building, the Peter and Shelagh Godsoe building, the Labatt and Beamish wings. Even the lobbies and elevators are named after donors. That’s a big deal. A decade ago, few wealthy people would consider an addiction or anxiety treatment centre a desirable legacy. As CAMH is becoming more welcoming to its patients, so are the rest of us.

But, it would be even more powerful if some of those funders admitted they’d struggled with the same illnesses themselves.

Which brings me to the end of my tour: the Intergenerational Wellness Building. Outside, there’s a children’s playground, basketball court, some barbeques and tables on a pretty terrace. Inside, geriatric and youth patients have private rooms with windows that open and their own bathrooms.

Up on the second floor, there’s the newly named Linda Chamberlain nook, with its own plaque and photo tribute, which was unveiled at that ceremony I mentioned before.

Chamberlain was a patient here off and on for years. She later got a part-time job as a peer support worker on the very floor she’d lived on.

She founded the Dream Team, which advocates for supportive housing for mental health survivors. She runs a charity fostering the pets of mental health patients while they’re in hospital. She plays the bongos in kindergarten classes despite being sick with cancer.

You couldn’t ask for a more inspiring story. I imagine patients sitting in that nook, reading about Chamberlain and feeling a twinge of hope.

Despite all the plaques here, Chamberlain’s is the first tribute in the new buildings to a former patient.

There clearly should be more — starting with one for Capponi.

Credit: Toronto Star

Dawnmarie Harriott