Four years ago, Mel Thompson had a crazy idea: to ride across Canada and raise awareness about mental illness.
The foreboding length of the trip, the peaks and valleys, the daily struggle, the isolation and the support required to get through paralleled the challenges his daughter, Lindsay, faces as she lives with schizo-affective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
"There was symbolism there of the long journey and the battles that Lindsay wages every day against mental illness," Mr. Thompson says. "I didn't want that to be invisible any more."
The 60-year-old corporate executive - he is vice-president of customer service at Xerox Canada - trained relentlessly, running marathons, climbing mountains and logging countless kilometres on his bike, before dipping his wheel in the Pacific Ocean this past May 19. He dipped into the Atlantic Ocean on Aug. 29.
Along the way, The Ride For Mental Health raised $225,000 (and counting), a remarkably successful fundraising endeavour in a field where raising money is often a struggle.
At the outset, Mr. Thompson was looking only for sponsorship, but the ride became a fundraiser because of the enthusiastic response, particularly from corporations such as Xerox.
"I think we've crossed a threshold, where individuals and companies aren't afraid to support mental-health causes any more," Mr. Thompson says.
Darrell Gregersen, president and chief executive officer of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Foundation, which has embarked on an ambitious $100-million fundraising campaign, is also seeing an attitudinal shift, but it is subtle not seismic.
"Fundraising is always difficult, but some of what you experience when you approach people about mental-health causes is unique," she says.
The greatest barrier, Ms. Gregersen says, is stigma: If money is donated to the cause, there is an immediate assumption that the giver (or a family member) is mentally ill.
"It takes people out of their comfort zone," she says.
However, the CAMH Foundation scored a coup this week when philanthropist Raymond Chang made a $5-million donation, saying he was attracted to the promise of research breakthroughs.
When corporations give, they tend to look for high visibility and causes that rally the public and offer promise. That's why breast-cancer fundraising, with its giant runs, active survivor movement and the message that a cure is possible, is so successful.
"With breast cancer, people are running for their mothers, their sisters, their friends. I would love to see that kind of groundswell for mental health," Ms. Gregersen says.
Mr. Thompson says that is beginning. During his ride, he did 16 fundraising events and was amazed by the turnout.
He says what distinguishes fundraising initiatives in the health field is the organizational power, the "ability of survivors to mobilize.
"In mental health, we don't have that social movement yet and that's what we need."
In fact, one of the priorities of Michael Kirby, the chairman of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, is to create a social movement of volunteers as an offshoot of a new charitable foundation called the Mental Health Partnerships of Canada.
He hopes that the social movement will some day rival the Canadian Cancer Society and Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.
"A national charity and a national army of volunteers are critical if we want to keep mental illness out of the shadows forever," Mr. Kirby says.