New look, new hope at CAMH

Every day, as Linda Chamberlain walks through the halls of Toronto’s soon-to-be demolished Centre for Addiction and Mental Health on Queen Street West, she sees a part of herself in the patients she works with.

That’s because Chamberlain, now a peer support worker, was a CAMH patient for over 30 years, and she knows all too well what it’s like to be diagnosed with mental illness with no one to turn to.

When she was 18, Chamberlain started hearing voices and having delusions of someone hiding in her room. After repeated calls to the police, she was committed to the Queen Street Mental Health Centre and diagnosed with schizophrenia.

At that time the stigma surrounding mental illness was so pervasive that her family wanted nothing to do with her, she said, and refused to visit her.

“I didn’t have any hope because I had no family; my family abandoned me because they were ashamed of the illness,” she said. “So my family was CAMH here, the nurses, the doctors, the social workers, and now I look at the people I work with, and say, ‘That was me.'”

While it won’t be easy for her to say goodbye, she’ll have to, as the landmark administration building at 1001 Queen Street West has been marked for demolition starting January. Staff and supporters gathered recently say farewell to the facility.

The iconic building, sometimes referred to as “999 Queen,” has been in use as a mental health facility since the 1850s, when it was known as the “provincial lunatic asylum.” The structure will be torn down as part of a redevelopment plan that will see the opening of three new CAMH buildings.

Today, the facility suffers from numerous structural problems, such as plumbing and physical degradation, but to many, such as Gabriella Golea, administrative director of the geriatric mental health program, the biggest problem with the building is the stigma surrounding it.

“There was a time when parents would tell their children when they misbehaved, ‘You’d better be good or we’ll send you to 999,'” Golea said. “That perpetuated a stigma that still hangs around today.”

She said when dealing with patients they’ll say “I’ll visit, but I don’t want to come down to 1001.” She attributes this stigma to the bleak look of the building.

“If you look around, it looks far more institutional, and dare I say jail-like, compared to the other buildings,” she said. “When I look at what we’re planning to do with our re-development, we are moving away from that feeling of being cloistered away.”

Dr. Paul Garfinkel, president and CEO of CAMH, said he agrees the facility is not the most conducive to a healing environment.

“These are crummy buildings,” Garfinkel said. “They’re dark, the corridors are long and narrow, the rooms are tiny; it isn’t a therapeutic feeling.”

He said in the new buildings the halls will be larger, the rooms more airy, and windows and light enhanced to provide a warmer atmosphere.

“We want to fight the stigma, of the terrible site of 999 Queen,” he said. “We thought if we could do it right and well on the place that is notorious, we could demonstrate to the whole community that these illnesses are like any other human pain and suffering.”

And this is what Chamberlain strives for everyday when she goes to work – to show people that mental illness is not something to be afraid of and that there is hope for recovery.

“It’s so important to educate people so they understand, so that they won’t be afraid (of mental illness),” Chamberlain said. “And for me to turn my life around and actually work here, it shows that recovery is possible, but you have to have hope.”