I thank you for providing me the opportunity to speak.
I work at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. It's the largest mental health and addiction facility in Canada. I'm here as a person who, 28 years ago, was discharged from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, so I'm here today to explain to you some of my personal successes and some of the programs that were in place 28 years ago and that have allowed me to be sitting here today.
I grew up in a very violent family home in Quebec. I got involved in drugs and drug abuse and a lot of really obvious behaviour of kids who are facing a violent home life. At the age of 15, I had my first psychiatric hospitalization in Montreal, and it was probably annually after that, until I was in my twenties, that I was in and out of psychiatric facilities.
At some point, my mother, in desperation, shipped me off to Ontario, thinking my big sister would be able to assist me and get me on the straight and narrow. I'd had a baby. The baby remained in Quebec and I was here. I remember becoming aware of the old Queen Street Mental Health Centre, which was our provincial asylum at that time. I remember waking up there and spending many months at Queen Street. My sister took care of my daughter.
I was discharged to a rooming house and boarding house in Parkdale, a very infamous one that has been written about, Channan Court, and I lived there with 75 other people, all of us paying different rents depending on our income source. After a while there, I started to identify more as a mom than as a crazy person. I remember running into a YWCA program called “Focus on Change”. They had confidence in me and thought I had something to offer. They offered me parental leave while I went to school and did some academic upgrading.
I remember the very day that they accepted me. I was thrilled. I had to write a little essay, so I wrote about Kraft Dinner, which was a common meal in the boarding house and rooming house. I remember going home and being elated, actually, that I had a way to structure my day, with somewhere to go and something to do. I remember being on the King streetcar holding my baby daughter and finding a louse on her head. The rooming house and boarding house always had lice and other delightful creatures.
In my community--and I would define my community as people who have mental health and addiction challenges or histories--poverty is more than just inadequate money. We talk a lot about poverty of soul. We talk a lot about rejection, about filth, about bugs, and about exclusion.
I pursued a dream of going back to school. I enjoyed the program so much at the Y and I really wanted to learn. I wanted to get out of the community of crazy people and start being more normal or doing what I thought normal people did. I had to fight the mental health system, because they told me not to bother, that it was too stressful and I couldn't handle it, without any understanding of the stress of poverty. I wanted to work with women in prison in particular, because I'd had some jail experiences and was really very distressed by what I'd witnessed in the penal system.
I was very fortunate in that I met a woman who chaired a board of directors for a local housing co-operative. This probably changed my life more than anything else. Here I was with a two-year-old child. I'd just come out of a mental hospital. I was trying and struggling to go to school. I was offered a most wonderful apartment in a wonderful community where I had not only affordable and secure housing but a very strong community of people around me who I could count on.
My confidence increased. I did exceedingly well in school. I was given a number of scholarships and awards. At the time, I remember telling my welfare worker this good news, fully expecting the money to be taken back, and being told: “Good for you, Diana. You keep it. Congratulations.”
I lived in the co-op for about 16 years and then purchased my first home. I have not used social assistance. I've not relied on welfare. I've been a steady taxpayer ever since. So investing in me for two years was a really good ROI--return on investment.
Now I'm the Employment Works! coordinator at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. I help the centre's human resources department actively recruit and retain people with mental health and addiction challenges for vacant positions at the hospital. So far, we've hired 130 more.
I'm going to wrap up. On some of the issues people present to me today, the big issue is Canada student loans. Many students first develop mental health symptoms in university and college and often don't finish their programs. When you've received a mental health diagnosis, you can actually disappear for years at a time and not even have a memory that you owe that outstanding debt. I can tell you that a number of people who really have a strong desire to return to school are not able to because of the restrictions and clawbacks.
We have a number of really good educational programs with George Brown College that get people actual jobs when they graduate. I think we need to invest in more initiatives specific to the community.
We have what we call augmented education, which is a way of teaching people who have mental health and addiction challenges. It is a little unique and a little different from other mechanisms.
I'll finish by saying I find it very interesting in checking the Canadian Human Rights Act and looking at the Ontario Human Rights Code that the definition of a person with a disability includes a person who has an addiction to either drugs or alcohol. That's in both the federal and provincial acts, yet our local disability support payments do not consider people with addictions to be disabled. I wonder how this confusion can continue to exist.
Without getting Ontario disability supports.... If you're on Ontario Works or welfare, you're not eligible for a lot of the employment supports that helped me 28 years ago and are not there to help a number of people today. I hope you can take a look at that.