Pat Capponi’s Order of Canada recognizes advocacy for mentally ill

Pat Capponi’s Order of Canada recognizes advocacy for mentally ill

Pat Capponi is a psychiatric survivor who lived in poverty for years. Now she’s an outspoken advocate for those living in poverty and with mental illness. She has been awarded the Order of Canada. (VINCE TALOTTA / TORONTO STAR

Catherine Porter

Jul 01 2015

Canada Day was a big day for the crazies of this country.

Pat Capponi was awarded the Order of Canada.

She wasn’t the first to be given the country’s top award for her inspiring advocacy work for the mentally ill. Nor, surely, was she the first recipient to be a psychiatric survivor herself, since one in five Canadians suffers from mental illness.

But how many have worn their illness openly and proudly, like Capponi in her iconic cowboy hat?

“Mental illness opened doors for us not closed them,” she wrote in her fifth of seven books, Beyond the Crazy House. “It’s given us challenging, meaningful and interesting lives.”

You go girl!

If the Order of Canada was awarded for resilience and courage, Capponi would have won it decades ago.

She grew up in a house of terror. Her father was unspeakably cruel, beating his wife and five children daily for sport. In one haunting passage of her first painfully good book, Upstairs in the Crazy House, she describes how her mother finally packed them up and left one night after he tried to drown her by sticking her head in the toilet. They were finally free! She walked them around their suburban Montreal neighbourhood, until it became clear they had no place to go.

Then, she led them back home.

You can see why, by 18, she was a wreck, spending her days wandering the house, ringing her hands in fear and crying.

She thought again of suicide. Instead, she walked into the emergency room of a general hospital and asked to see the psychiatrist.

Over the next 11 years, she was hospitalized for depression another six times.

In the late seventies, when mental institutions shut down, Capponi was discharged to a run-down, dirty rooming house in Parkdale crowded with psychiatric patients. It was hardly better than a prison; most patients would never venture beyond the porch, so frightened had they become of the outside world that had so hastily discarded them.

Four years later, Capponi packed up her few meager belongings and left. She had seen the inside of what we now call the “mental health system.” She was determined to change it.

Her main message: patients are people who must be treated with respect and dignity. They need more than medication. They need what we all do — stability, love, a safe place to live, a purpose. Her mantra became “a home, a job, a friend.”

How she pursued that has changed over the years.

Her initial approach was the battering ram. She got a job as a community worker at the Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre, and took politicians like Ontario Health Minister Larry Grossman on tours of squalid rooming houses, like her old home. She served politicians watery soup at city hall. She threatened revolution.

Soon, she learned change came easier as a bridge. She joined dozens of mental health committees, including powerful ones, like the provincial Psychiatric Patient Advocate Office.

Her sharp intellect and disarming dry humour won her many powerful friends who were in a position to make changes.

Celebrated psychologist and mental health champion Dr. Reva Gerstein once called Capponi her “teacher.”

She is what she preaches.

I phoned Capponi on Canada Day to congratulate her.

“It’s one of those events that makes you look back and go, ‘Holy Cow, it has been a very interesting ride,’ ” she said.

What stands out?

She told me about starting the Gerstein Crisis Centre, where people nearing psychological breakdown can get a bed and some help, without fear of being locked up.

“When we started it, we made a point that people with mental illness backgrounds would get [certain] jobs, everything else being equal,” she said. “It was the first time people who had mental illness could actually benefit from saying so.”

She talked also about becoming a member of Ontario’s Consent and Capacity Board, a tribunal that holds the key to freedom for people like her, locked up in psychiatric institutions. Before she joined, the survivor community largely considered the board a rubber stamp for zealous psychiatrists.

“I’m the first out crazy on the board,” she said. “I bring a new perspective. Two years ago, we did an education day. I brought in our guys to talk to the members about the cultural barriers to admitting one has mental illness.”

When she says “our guys,” she means graduates from Voices from the Street, an advocacy boot camp she helped launch a few years ago. She is the lead facilitator, teaching people all the tricks and lessons she learned over years.

The program started for fellow consumers/survivors, like her.

“When we added people with addictions and newcomers, everyone was elevated. It was brilliant,” she said. “The mix pulled people out of their stupid silos, so they saw not all their problems had to do with their label, mental illness. They saw single moms, newcomers had similar difficulties.”

With the Order of Canada, she has set the bar even higher.

“I hope they feel they have a large part in this,” she said, “like when the home team gets the Stanley Cup — everyone gets a piece of it.”

Canada Day also marked Capponi’s 66th birthday.

I can’t think of a better present.

Happy Birthday, Pat!

Credit: Toronto Star

Dawnmarie Harriott