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New chair of Mental Health Commission sees wave of interest in mental illness

May 14, 2008 - Portrait of Dr. David Goldbloom in front of a painting done by the artist named Lava. Lava is an artist with Workman Arts, a CAMH supported program, where those affected by mental illness can express themselves through visual and theatrical arts.

Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail/Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail

Renowned psychiatrist David Goldbloom has been named the new chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

He takes over from Michael Kirby, who led the MHCC since its inception in 2007. The former senator said he will remain active in the field. In the coming days he will officially launch a new group, Partners for Mental Health, a coalition he hopes will spur a social movement that rivals breast cancer in terms of public visibility and political influence.

"We're finally getting mental illness out of the shadows forever," he said.

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Dr. Goldbloom, the senior medical adviser at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, takes over as chair just at the MHCC prepares to release its much-anticipated mental-health strategy. (Canada is the only G8 country without a mental-health strategy.) He said a strategy is a way of articulating priorities and focusing efforts, but stressed that the commission does not fund mental-health programs.

"We're a really small group and we don't control the resources, the money. Our role is to be a catalyst, a collaborator and an influencer," Dr. Goldbloom said.

When asked for highlights of the strategy, he demurred: "I don't want to give away the store when it comes to content." But he said he was aware of criticism of early drafts of the strategy – namely that it was anti-psychiatry and paid too little attention to those with severe mental illness – and that it had been revised substantially.

Dr. Goldbloom, who has been on the board of the MHCC since its inception, said he is proud of its achievements. In particular, he singled out At Home/ Chez Soi, one of the largest mental-health research projects in the world. It's a $110-million examination of how to best deal with homelessness among those suffering from severe mental illness, being conducted in Moncton, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver. To date it has already resulted in more than 1,000 chronically homeless people being housed permanently and provided insight on how to tackle challenges in various subgroups of homeless people, such as those with addiction problems and urban aboriginals.

"This is a really concrete example of the commission making a difference and we need to continue to do so," Dr. Goldbloom said.

He was quick to add, however, that the commission cannot take much credit. "We're riding the crest of a wave of growing public interest in mental health – in government, in business and the media."

The other major initiative of the MHCC in recent years has been an anti-stigma campaign. An estimated one in five Canadians will suffer from a bout of mental illness each year, and mental-health problems are the leading cause of absenteeism and disability in the workplace.

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Dr. Goldbloom has a stellar academic background, with an undergraduate degree from Harvard University, a graduate degree from Oxford University (which he attended as a Rhodes Scholar), and his medical and psychiatric training at McGill University. Beyond his professional responsibilities, he is chair of the board of governors of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and a former member of the board of directors of the Glenn Gould Foundation.

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