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$10-million gift will raise profile of anxiety disorders

At Peggy Richter's OCD clinic, the waiting list is three years – a debilitating length of time for Canadians whose lives and work prospects have been paralyzed by obsessive compulsive disorder, an illness that can prevent people from even leaving their house in the morning.

Now, thanks to a $10-million donation by Toronto businessman Frederick Thompson to the city's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, that waiting list is about to shrink.

The donation – the largest in Canadian history for anxiety disorders, and among the largest in the area of mental health – will create the Frederick W. Thompson Anxiety Disorders Centre, which will become the largest multidisciplinary treatment and research centre focused specifically on anxiety disorders, such as OCD.

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According to Statistics Canada, about 12 per cent of Canadians experience some form of anxiety disorder, with the highest rates of hospitalization among people over the age of 65, a worrisome statistic given the country's rapidly aging population. People struggling with anxiety often wait between five or 10 years before even seeking help – and then they are usually seen by general practitioners without special training in their specific symptoms.

"Ethically as a society, you have to question how it is that we take extensive pains to say we can't have people waiting for hip surgery, we can't have people waiting for cancer care, but it's okay to wait three years when suffering a severe mental illness," said Dr. Richter.

In addition to treating patients, the new centre will work in tandem with brain researchers at Sunnybrook, as well as offer training to new graduates and mental-health professionals from across the country.

By focusing care in one area of mental illness, the centre will become more efficient and become a "catalyst" for research into better treatment, Dr. Richter suggested.

"You hit that critical mass, you develop an area which has the needed specialized expertise," she said. "There has been historically a marked absence in specialized services for people with anxiety conditions. We know these conditions are extremely common and very treatable."

Dr. Richter also plans to use the centre to offer more public education, raising awareness about the disorders. "People are hungry for knowledge."

And mental health is hungry for funding, often overlooked by philanthropists who give to more high-profile – and less stigmatized – diseases such as cancer and heart disease. When Mr. Thompson, 86, began considering where to donate his multimillion-dollar gift, he approached his granddaughter, who is finishing her residency and had worked at Sunnybrook. She suggested mental health.

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In addition to the work the centre will accomplish, Mr. Thompson, who has a grandson who suffers with anxiety, hopes his donation will raise the profile of mental health as an area in need of additional resources. "Hopefully it will encourage other people to move in this direction," he said.

Dr. Ritcher anticipates the same result: "The presence of such a centre by itself generates buzz – at the very least it brings it to public attention."

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