CAMH loses a shining light: Diana Capponi ‘helped me be brave’

Diana Capponi, right, with Linda Chamberlain and her sister Pat Capponi at the unveiling of the Linda Chamberlain plaque for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Diana, now deceased, organized the event. (Catherine Porter / Toronto Star)

Catherine Porter

Sep 27 2014

The new buildings at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health slumped this week.

One of their central buttresses had disappeared. Diana Capponi died, a week after being diagnosed with cancer.

She was 61.

Capponi was all things at CAMH. She was a self-described “crazy” who spent months there as a resident. She had also been a “human trash can for years” as a heroine addict. And, for the past 11 years, she was staff.

Her job was recruiting other survivors to work there — not just in Joe jobs, pushing coffee carts or filing paper, but in professional positions as pharmacists, research analysts, psychologists …

She believed passionately that work was medicine for people recovering from mental illnesses and addictions. It provided confidence, purpose, a paycheque. It also cured “normal” people of nasty misconceptions about survivors, which freed us, too.

It was revolutionary.

By the time she died, more than 330 hospital staff — one-10th of the employees — had come through her “employment works” program.

“She helped me see that I could work again, like I had before I got sick, in a big job,” said Helen Hook, executive director of the Consumer/Survivor Information Resource Centre. “She helped me be brave.”

Capponi’s accomplishments were even more inspiring when you knew about her horrific childhood. Her father beat her and her siblings for sport. Her sister Pat describes the night their mother hatched an escape plan after he’d nearly drowned her in the toilet bowl. But, at the end of the night, she led them back home to him.

He pulled Diana out of school after Grade 9, not because the family needed money, but because “there was no sense keeping her there since she was so stupid,” Pat writes in her blinding book, Beyond the Crazy House: Changing the Future of Madness.

Somehow, she clawed the self-confidence to apply for college after her last stint in the hospital and years later was given the Premier’s Distinguished Alumni Award.

By then, she had started the Ontario Council of Alternative Businesses, which still operates five survivor-run businesses.

The miracle: She was not pickled with bitterness. Instead, she was fuelled by hope.

“She liked being a ladder to others,” Hook says. “It brought her up, too.”

Capponi gave me a tour of the new CAMH campus last year. She was proud of the new buildings but prouder of the internal renovation in the works. It quickly became clear she was the lead architect, building a culture that respected patients.

My favourite example: Four years ago, the hospital went smoke-free and management planned to hire security guards to enforce the rules. Capponi proposed instead they hire former patients as “Clean Air Ambassadors” who would not only remind patients to butt out, but also say hello, give directions, mention the cold and how they should probably zip up.

They were so popular, they’ve become a permanent feature.

“I learned about expectations,” she told me on one of her regular “fresh air” breaks, to smoke off the hospital grounds. “You live up to them or down to them.”

She was a bridge who spoke truth, with kindness, to power.

I last saw Capponi at a celebration for Linda Chamberlain , another firebrand survivor whom Capponi had championed. The new hospital campus is covered with names, all of powerful companies and moneyed sponsors, and Capponi had successfully campaigned to have Chamberlain’s added.

The Linda Chamberlain nook is the first area named after a survivor. It seemed to me the perfect medicine for patients, sitting in that nook, wondering if they’ll ever get better.

I asked Capponi if more were coming.

“I’m hopeful there will be more,” she said. It would be a sign that, finally, “we value lived experience as much as we value bucks.”

I’m starting the campaign for the Diana Capponi floor at CAMH.

Will you join me?

Credit: Toronto Star

Dawnmarie Harriott