Advocates for social change
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health ( CAMH) is an impressive facility: It is the country’s largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital, and it is also one of the world’s leading research centres for addiction and mental health.
But from the inside, it seems filled with more of a spirit of passionate advocacy than one would expect from an academic health science centre.
“People work here because of a personal cause,” says Kim Bellissimo, vicepresident of human resources and organizational development with CAMH. “They either have family or friends that they know who have experienced mental health issues or addiction, or they themselves might be someone who has experienced a mental health issue or addiction.”
The Toronto-based organization has been recognized as one of Canada’s 10 Most Admired Corporate Cultures by Waterstone Human Capital in the Broader Public Sector category for excellence in recruitment, vision and leadership and other key attributes.
Bellissimo, who worked in both the private and public sectors prior to joining CAMH, was almost immediately struck by how inclusive and unique its employees and culture were when compared to other organizations.
On her second day with the organization, attending a new employee orientation meeting, she was struck by how open and inclusive her new colleagues were.
“I sat in the back of the room as the new VP, not wanting to intimidate anyone, and throughout the day people stood up and selfidentified as having some form of addiction or mental illness in their family, or openness around sexual orientation.
“I sat at the back of the room and said to myself, ‘ This is not happening anywhere else, at any other place of employment.’ ”
The strong tradition of CAMH employees openly sharing their lived experiences, sexual orientation, ethnic and social backgrounds and disadvantages “and really honouring those differences,” has created a level of inclusivity and an “interest in being part of a cause,” she explains.
Issues around mental health are still strange and baffling to a large segment of the population, which has also strengthened and molded the award- winning culture at CAMH.
“Unlike other employers, ‘ Driving social change’ is one of CAMH’s corporate strategic directions,” says Bellissimo. “There is still great stigma around mental illness and addiction in this country and this province. It is inspiring to be part of a cause and I think that is a real motivator for people.”
There are signs that things are changing for the better, however. The Ontario government has run an ad campaign to educate workers about mental health in the workplace and recently announced a campaign to help first responders deal with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Private companies such as Bell Canada, with its Let’s Talk Day campaign, are also tackling the stigma around mental health issues. CAMH’s commitment to raising public awareness of mental health is part of the hospital’s culture; the CAMH Foundation hosts the prestigious Transforming Lives Awards to celebrate inspiring individuals who help change attitudes. A newer CAMH Foundation initiative, One Brave Night for Men- tal Health, challenges the country to stay up all night in support of those living with mental illness; at dawn participants post their sunrise selfies to stand in support of those living with mental illness.
Still, there is a long way to go, and organizations such as CAMH will continue to take the lead as prejudice and discrimination persists. “We’re still not there yet,” says Bellissimo.
She credits the development and nurturing of CAMH’s outstanding corporate culture first and foremost to the leadership from the organization’s president and chief executive officer, Dr. Catherine Zahn. “She is a visionary leader who is really transforming CAMH.”
Zahn has led the transition of CAMH from “a cus- todial care model to a recovery- based model of care” and believes “that everyone who touches mental illness will become an advocate,” explains Bellissimo.
“Those kinds of messages, that she regularly delivers, and her relentless advocacy for this community, really sets the pace for why we are becoming the culture that we are.”
Beyond strong leadership at the top, CAMH has created a wealth of programs for employees that support and promote its inclusive culture. One is its Employment Works! program, which promotes the hiring of those with “lived experience.” That might include individuals who have spent time in hospital or have recovered from a mental illness, and would have the blank spots in their resume that would make more traditional employers wary.
As well, individuals with lived experience can be hired into the new role of peer support worker and serve to support CAMH patients. “Who better to help our patients manage through their mental illness than someone who has actually had firsthand experience doing that? They are instrumental in helping us to achieve recovery-based care.”
As part of CAMH’s larger effort to raise awareness of mental health and addiction issues and change public attitudes, CAMH also introduced a corporate volunteer program that hosted 108 corporate volunteer events that attracted more than 923 corporate volunteers to the hospital in 2015.
“We have been providing this for several years to organizations who want their employees to have a valuable volunteer experience. Many employers now give their employees a day off to volunteer and most, frankly, want to be doing something meaningful. We have created opportunities for groups of employees to come in and spend an afternoon with our patients.”
Those experiences run the gamut from assisting in the gym to gardening or participating in therapeutic arts and craft classes. “These are wonderful feel-good experiences. Many of the organizations that come in come in often, four or five times a year. It really gives people an opportunity to have first- hand experience with those with mental illness and addiction and de- mystifies some of the preconceived notions or fears they might have.”
CAMH has also created a “change agent series,” encouraging employees to share their own personal experiences, ranging from mental health and addiction to being a refugee that are published internally.
UNLIKE OTHER EMPLOYERS, ‘DRIVING SOCIAL CHANGE’ IS ONE OF CAMH’S CORPORATE STRATEGIC DIRECTIONS. THERE IS STILL GREAT STIGMA AROUND MENTAL ILLNESS AND ADDICTION IN THIS COUNTRY AND THIS PROVINCE. IT IS INSPIRING TO BE PART OF A CAUSE AND I THINK IT IS A REAL MOTIVATOR FOR PEOPLE — KIM BELLISSIMO, CAMH VICE-PRESIDENT OF HUMAN RESOURCES AND ORGANIZATIONAL DEVELOPMENT
In her early days at CAMH, Kim Bellissimo was immediately struck by the level of employee inclusion ingrained in the operation.