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From ‘character flaw’ to ‘part of the human condition’

by Chris Daponte

WELLINGTON CTY. - Fred Wagner says national campaigns and local grassroots movements alike have become integral to driving the conversation about mental health.

“There’s a greater degree of awareness about mental health now and people are more willing to talk about it,” said Wagner, executive director of the Waterloo-Wellington branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).

He specifically mentioned the positive impact made by Bell Let’s Talk Day, during which Bell donates five cents to mental health initiatives for texts, calls and social media posts.

The eighth annual event on Feb. 1 included 138,383,995 interactions, raising close to $7 million for the cause.

He also acknowledged the work of local organizations such as McFadden’s Movement, created by Guelph Storm captain Garrett McFadden, and Get In Touch for Hutch, started by friends and family members of late Arthur teen Steven Hutchison.

Those groups, Wagner said, have helped people progress from viewing mental health afflictions as “a character flaw” to properly regarding them as “part of the human experience.”

After all, he noted, one in five Canadians will struggle with a mental health issue at some point in their lifetime.

Here 24/7

Wagner said the first step for anyone seeking help could be calling the toll-free telephone line Here 24/7 at 1-844-437-3247 (HERE247).

Established in April 2014, it is billed by as the “front door” to addiction, mental health and crisis services provided by about a dozen agencies across Waterloo and Wellington.

Those answering calls provide the intake, assessment, referral, crisis, waitlist and appointment bookings for those agencies.

During crises, CMHA can dispatch someone right away to speak with the caller.

“It’s really busy,” said Wagner of Here 24/7.

He explained CMHA officials originally expected about 2,000 calls per month, but the service has been averaging about 4,400 monthly over the last couple years.

“There’s a greater degree of awareness about mental health now and people are more willing to talk about it,” said Wagner.


Another aspect of the CMHA’s work is identifying issues and intervening before people turn to self harm or suicide.

Last month CMHA offered an applied suicide intervention skills training (ASIST) session in Centre Wellington.

The goal of the two-day workshop is to provide participants with the skills necessary to connect with, understand and assist persons at risk for suicide.

“It just increases their confidence and breaks through some barriers,” said Wagner.

ASIST sessions are part of the Living Works program, which started in 2005.

Workshops are offered on an ongoing basis, he said, and private groups can also request an ASIST workshop, he noted.

“Generally, they’re well attended,” said Wagner. “The feedback is always really positive.”

No prior experience or formal training is necessary to take ASIST, which aims to help participants:

- understand how attitudes affect views on suicide and interventions;

- provide suicide first-aid to a person at risk;

- identify elements of an effective suicide safety plan and how to implement it;

- appreciate the value of improving and integrating suicide prevention resources in the community; and

- recognize other important aspects of suicide prevention, including life promotion and self care.

“The more we get people trained to recognize when someone is not doing well ... there’s a greater likelihood that people will come forward to seek help,” said Wagner.

Youths interested in similar training can attend safeTALK, also part of the Living Works program.

The half-day alertness sessions aim to prepare those aged 15 and older, regardless of prior experience or training, to become a “suicide alert helper.”


Just over two years ago, year ago, Wellington County OPP and the CMHA launched a new Integrated Mobile Police and Crisis Team (IMPACT).

The program, funded by the Waterloo Wellington Local Health Integration Network, enables specially-trained clinicians to attend mental health-related calls alongside Wellington OPP officers.

The goal is to ensure residents have better health outcomes by receiving the most appropriate community-based crisis response at the time of need.

Officials say IMPACT, which also helps divert patients from hospital emergency rooms, has been a great success.

Wagner said CMHA officials also work closely with local schools boards, including participation in crisis response teams.

“We need to work together to make sure [students] know  help is available,” he said.

Other key CMHA allies  include sports groups.

For example, this month the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and CMHA, in association with Teachers Life, are teaming up for Talk Today month.

Established in 2014 following the suicide of 20-year-old Terry Trafford of the Saginaw Spirit, Talk Today provides mental health support to players and raises awareness about mental health and suicide throughout OHL communities.

“Since 2014 the Talk Today program has had a very positive impact in OHL communities, and has enhanced the playing environment for our student athletes,” OHL Commissioner David Branch stated in a press release.

“Nobody is immune to mental health challenges and we’re proud to continue our partnership with CMHA Ontario and Teachers Life in hopes that Talk Today can help end the stigma.”

Over 940 OHL players, 284 billets, 99 coaches and more than 47 front office staff have received mental health and suicide prevention training to date.

Part of the Talk Today program are OHL mental health awareness games, including one in Guelph on Feb. 2 featuring the Guelph Storm and Owen Sound Attack, which offered:

- a CMHA-run kiosk so fans can learn more about mental health;

- public address announcements about mental health; and

- a 50/50 draw by the Kiwanis Club of Guelph, with money raised going towards CMHA Waterloo Wellington.

Private groups

CMHA is also working with McFadden’s Movement, which strives to develop awareness and help athletes who suffer from mental health issues.

Wagner said private groups like McFadden’s movement and Get In Touch for Hutch (started in 2013, after Arthur teen Steven Hutchison took his life) have been “incredibly helpful” in raising awareness and generating discussion.

He added they also help shine a light on the fact mental health care is underfunded in Ontario - some believe to the tune of about $1.5 billion.

Wagner also mentioned recent comments from Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, who told the media that, “Just because you’re a good athlete doesn’t mean you can escape mental health issues that affect people.”

Said Wagner, “It’s really gratifying to get the attention of athletes and get them talking.”

For more information visit

February 9, 2018


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