Camille Quenneville Heads the Ontario Division
of the Canadian Mental Health Association
Story by Matthew St. Amand
Photography by Jenna Muirhead-Gould
The mental health needs of Canadians have changed since 1918, when the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) was founded, but the goal today remains the same as it did in the beginning: helping those in need.
Windsor native Camille Quenneville is the CEO of the CMHA’s Ontario Division. She came by her public service naturally, growing up in a politically active family in St. Clair Beach.
“I graduated from the University of Windsor,” Camille says, “and was lucky enough to get my first job at Queen’s Park in a minister’s office, which is where I really began to understand public policy and how it impacts people’s lives.”
The minister was Charles Beer who headed the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services for Ontario, overseeing services to children and youth, social services, such as welfare, the Ontario Disability Support Program and community service programs to address homelessness, domestic violence, spousal support, adoption and assisted housing for people with disabilities.
“Working in a political office helped me understand a number of issues in the social services world,” Camille continues. “The first was on children’s mental health. I struggled to understand how so many kids in Ontario could have mental health issues and sit on wait lists.”
The subject of children’s mental health became a focus for Camille and led to her working with the Ontario Public School Association. Her career path next took her to Children’s Mental Health Ontario. Camille sums up her feelings about this work, saying: “I feel this is a social justice issue that has not gotten the attention it deserves.”
Based on her passionate advocacy and ability to navigate the bureaucracy that makes public programs possible, the CMHA recruited Camille and in December 2012, she was named CEO of the Ontario Division of the CHMA.
The CMHA was created in April 1918. At the time, World War I was just coming to an end and a sea of “shell shocked” war veterans were returning home, adding to the numbers of citizens in society who were already living with a mental illness. Methods for dealing with mental illness at that time ranged from the barbaric to the ineffectual. Oftentimes, the solution amounted to little more than housing them in jails and asylums.
Dr. Clarence M. Hincks, one of the original founders of the CMHA, later commented: “I’ll never forget it as long as I live. That asylum had 900 patients and only one doctor. There was not one trained nurse in the entire institution.”
Since that time, the CMHA has a been a pioneer and innovator in mental health
reform. Under Dr. Hincks’ plan, nurses and social workers began receiving training. Care of individuals living with a mental illness slowly improved. History, though, has a knack for getting in the way of progress and the outbreak of World War II stalled the CMHA’s efforts. By the 1960s, the CMHA published its policy blueprint titled “More for the Mind”, for mental health reform. However, as the Scottish poet Robert Burns once wrote: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men. Gang aft a-gley”—the government of the time took action of a different kind closing overcrowded psychiatric hospitals, leaving many people with mental illness alone and without adequate care.
A video recounting the history of the CMHA states: “People with mental illness are full citizens, so CMHA created community services and promoted the mental health of all Canadians.”
“We’re able to reach more people than anyone else because we are a 100-year-old health charity with infrastructure across Ontario, across Canada,” Camille notes. “We’ve been beating down doors and having these conversations with anyone who will listen—elected officials, opinion leaders, service clubs, employers—about mental health issues. The fact is, we all have mental health—hopefully it’s good, but that’s not always the case.”
Although strides have been made to destigmatize mental illness, the work is not done.
“Maybe one of the positive take-aways from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Camille says, “is that it’s caused some people who ordinarily are fine, to struggle and has made them realize that having poor mental health can happen to anybody. Maybe there is more empathy now. People don’t bring depression onto themselves.”
The promotion of good mental health is the historical core of the CMHA, but its methods have evolved over the decades. This occurs most tangibly in the lives of Canadians through CMHA programs: “For instance, there is BounceBack®, a cognitive behavioral program delivered by phone,” Camille says. “It was developed by a physician in the United Kingdom. We license the program through CMHA BC and have scaled it across the country. The government of Ontario adopted it several years ago.”
BounceBack® is a free, guided self-help program aimed at helping people aged 15 and up who are experiencing mild-to-moderate anxiety or depression or may be feeling low, stressed, worried, irritable or angry. Participants receive telephone coaching, skill-building workbooks and online videos. Typically, it takes three to six months to complete the program.
“We also created ‘Talk Today’,” Camille continues, “which provides mental health and suicide prevention to the OHL (Ontario Hockey League). This is a unique program that began in 2014.”
The program’s origin sprang from tragedy, when hockey player Terry Trafford died by suicide after being cut from the Saginaw Spirit.
“The OHL reached out to CMHA,” Camille explains, “and said: ‘We have 300 players in our league and others may be struggling.’ Within three months all people were trained: players, coaches, parents and billet parents. The NHL became interested and has funded the expansion to the Canadian Junior Hockey League, using the program in other sports.”
The effectiveness of the program came to light when a player on the Peterborough Petes was in his high school class and observed a student near him scratching a message into a desk. The player read it, was troubled by the content and alerted the school’s principal. The person who carved the message was brought to a nearby ER and was evaluated as being acutely suicidal.
The program “Resilient Minds” works with first responders. The CMHA has also teamed up with several partners including the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, to address mental health issues among the province’s farmers.
“Farmers have unique needs,” Camille observes. “Their home is often their workplace. They rely on Mother Nature for their financial health, which can be precarious at times. So much is out of their hands.”
As an example of how CMHA Ontario makes use of its infrastructure and long list of partners, an insurance company approached the organization in 2020 seeking to donate toward a program to help farmers with their mental health. Within 24 hours Camille and her team learned that the University of Guelph had developed curriculum to support farmers but had no way of disseminating it.
“That’s what we do at the CMHA,” Camille says. “We offer the leadership, knowledge, experience and infrastructure to see that services are delivered.”
Regarding the future leaders of CMHA Ontario, Camille is hopeful: “One of the things I’ve found watching the next generation is how much more willing they are to embrace their mental health and talk about it without embarrassment. The future of mental health is in good hands. They embrace the important issues.”