David Newman is making up for lost time. The resident of Winnipeg, capital of the Canadian province of Manitoba, works for the provincial government as an internal auditor. He is also completing his MBA thesis at Laurentian University – focusing on mental illness in the workplace – with the ultimate aim of a PhD in organisational theory and behaviour, industrial relations and health care management at the University of Alberta.
Busy schedule, indeed, but Newman also finds time to volunteer on the boards of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Winnipeg and the Schizophrenia Society of Canada. He also serves on committees for both, including the CMHA ownership linkage committee that keeps the board connected to the members, generally consumers of mental health services.
He’s been with both organisations since 2008, in something of a balancing act. “I’ve been treasurer and vice-chair of CMHA Winnipeg, currently I’m the secretary,” Newman says. “Most of the work is financial and operative oversight. I’ve approached volunteering hours like each is a part-time job.
“It’s at least 10 hours a month for the two combined, six to eight hours for CMHA. Right now we’re doing policy review for CMHA, so you have to be flexible – 10 hours can turn into 15 or 20 a month.”
Newman will also soon be involved with a peer-support group, “just relating my past and how I now manage effectively the challenges that come up”. His employer has been generally supportive. “Most of our board meetings are in the evenings or on weekends so don’t conflict with work, but I think my employers like the idea of me volunteering.”
Volunteering runs in the family. Newman’s mother used to organise meetings and lunches with her curling team, while his electrician father was the neighbourhood Mr Fix-it. However, the main stimulus for Newman’s volunteer work came from his own trials with mental illness.
“I experienced long periods of unemployment, at least two years cumulatively, because of schizophrenia and depression anxiety,” he says. “What I’m trying to do now is apply my skills and lead by example to help others.”
His salvation was a CMHA recovery and rehabilitation program. “Basically it’s social accounting, social rehabilitation – they help you stress-manage and fulfil employment goals.”
Having turned his own life around, Newman decided to give a little back. “I started volunteering for SCOPE [Sustaining Creative Opportunities for People and Employment]. It provided labour for individuals struggling with mental illness.” Within both groups, Newman sees his primary role as one of advocacy. “We need strong mental health literacy so people understand and don’t stigmatise, generalise or discriminate.”
In his rapid-fire life, the only thing that Newman does have difficulty fitting in is a few hours of downtime each week. “Once I recovered, I was determined to always do as much as I can. Leisure is one of those things I find more difficult to fit in, but I make the time. I have a girlfriend who keeps me grounded and makes sure I take time out.”
Mental health at work
As in Australia, there is limited recognition in Canada of the social circumstances such as poverty and workplace stress that can contribute to mental illness.
Recent studies have tagged the pace of work and long hours as significant factors in mental illness. David Newman agrees: “In the business sector, mental health can fall by the wayside. A lot of research shows that companies should focus on healthy workplaces because they get higher productivity and higher profits. Also, it’s the right thing to do.”
As 2010 Australian of the Year Professor Patrick McGorry indicated, raising public awareness of mental illness can be a painfully slow process. Newman sees a similar pattern in Canada.
“When I was ill, back in 2005, there was still stigma even within the health care system. It was basically a medication model and counselling came second. That changed with the creation of the Mental Health Board of Canada in 2006.”
Some corporations in Canada are addressing root causes. “Bell Canada does their ‘Let’s Talk’ campaign because I think the CEO had a family member with depression, but often the attitude is, ‘Well, it’s your own weakness’. The reality is it’s not weakness – it’s socio-biologically and psychologically related.”
For more information on CMHA Winnipeg, see www.cmhawpg.mb.ca.
This article is from the October 2012 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.