A History of Mental Health Support in Canada

2022-07-27

 |  Health/Lifestyle

The understanding Canadians have of the general importance of mental and wellbeing has become more common in present times. However the history of organizations in Canada that specialize in mental health awareness has succeeded 100 years, developing and shifting throughout time to form the foundation of our current understanding. These organizations historically and continue to advocate for the monetary and institutional support of mental wellness efforts throughout the country as well as raising mental health awareness and providing resources to the greater population. Within the next few weeks our Youth Journal will be discussing the connection between mental health and sustainability, to provide resources and insight for managing environmentalism driven anxiety.

History of Mental Health Awareness in Canada: 

One of the most well-known and longest running organizations is the CMHA—the Canadian Mental Health Association, founded by Dr. Clarence Hinks on April 26, 1918 as the Canadian National Committee for Mental Hygiene. Dr. Hinks founded the CMHA as a response to the inhumane mistreatment of those within asylums as well as the influx of returning soldiers who have been greatly impacted by traumatic demands of war. Hinks was frustrated that mental health illness impacted “practically every home in Canada” but there was little support or awareness given to the general population.4 

In 1918, the CMHA headed efforts such as the Manitoba Survey which surveyed the treatment of patients within mental hospitals. This later resulted in the prohibition of the physical and mental abuse of patients within these institutions. It is important to acknowledge that the organization’s early history utilizes “dated” terminology such as “mental deficiency” and ideas of eugenics. However, the CMHA’s work was revolutionary within North America for its co-operation with academic institutions and governments to fund scientific research and awareness efforts. The 1940s introduced mental health support services in schools and workspaces whilst the 1950s introduced a national mental health week. These efforts would pave the way for other organizations such as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), and the Community Mental Health Action Plan (CMHAP) that may serve not only the nation but also specific regions and communities.4 At present, mental health awareness is delivered in workplaces and educational spaces as well as reaching larger audiences through social media. Most major mental health awareness organizations including the CMHA have moved towards strategies that serve as more specialized community efforts. Mental health is an incredibly situational affair and is greatly impacted by intersectionality—the “intersections” of compounding marginalization caused by factors such as racism, classism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, among others. An intersectional framework considers these social and environmental factors, allowing these supports to better respond to the intricacies of marginalization 3.

Why is Mental Health Important?

Poor mental health can be detrimental to living a content and healthy life. Mental health embodies one’s emotional and psychological wellbeing, impacting one’s emotional and mental state as well as one’s physical ability. Poor mental health is not only linked to increased risk of conditions such as diabetes or heart disease, but it also creates additional barriers to dealing with stress or connecting with others.5

Mental health difficulties can impact anyone regardless of external factors such as class, race, etc..  However, marginalized populations are particularly vulnerable because of discrimination, colonization, or other forms of collective trauma. Both broad and specialized organizations such as the CMHA & CAMH provide information about how to access mental health support such as mindfulness and therapy. They hope to move away from a healthcare system that only responds to mental health crises and towards a system that utilizes specialized supports to prevent crises altogether. 

What is Therapy?

One of the most common treatments for poor mental health is therapy. There is a large variety of the forms that therapy may take (cognitive-behavioural, interpersonal, psychodynamic, etc) and each form is conducted differently depending on the therapist. Regardless of form, the primary goal of therapy is to aid one’s self with inner thoughts, behaviours, stresses, trauma, or future goals through conversation and small exercises. These activities and conversations serve as a tailored and accessible means of approaching one’s mental health in a sustainable, lasting way. 

It is important to note that comfortability with one’s therapist is integral to the success of the session. One may seek out a therapist of a certain temperament, of a particular gender; age-range; and cultural background; or trait of marginalization such as ability or queerness. Actively engaging with one’s therapist’s questions and ideas requires an open mind, honesty, and clear communication. It is important to trust the therapist with difficult thoughts and experiences as therapy demands a great amount of vulnerability. For some, it may be challenging to discuss trauma associated with marginalization or discrimination with those who are unfamiliar with these experiences.7 

Though the process of therapy and searching for a suitable therapist may be emotionally draining, the lessons learnt about one’s self or coping with situations can be applied throughout the entirety of one’s life. The resources provided by mental health awareness organizations seek to make the process a little easier. If therapy is an accessible option for an individual, it may be something to heavily consider to improve one’s mental health. If you are interested in learning more both the CMHA and the MHCC websites have general resource pages.


The next two articles in this series will explore mental health through an environmental lens. We will delve into ecoanxiety, compassionate environmentalism, and the importance of mental wellbeing within environmental advocacy. We hope you join us in learning more about these topics and explore inspiring resources that may help you manage your own environmental anxiety!

Works Cited & Consulted

  1. “About CAMH.” CAMH, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH),           https://www.camh.ca/en/driving-change/about-camh. 
  2. “About the Community Mental Health Action Plan.” Community Mental Health Action Plan, Community Mental Health Action Plan, 26 Oct. 2021, https://mentalhealthactionplan.ca/about-us/. 
  3. Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). Executive Summary: Canadian Mental Health Association Nationwide Strategic Plan, 2019. Web Archive. https://cmha.ca/wp-    content/uploads/2021/08/CMHA-StrategicPlan2021-Eng.pdf.
  4. “CMHA History.” CMHA, Canadian Mental Health Association, 15 Nov. 2021,
https://cmha.ca/who-we-are/cmha-national/our-history/timeline/.
  1. Goldbloom, David, and Louise Bradley. “The Mental Health Commission of Canada: the first five years.” The Mental Health Review, vol. 17, no. 4, 2012, pp. 221-228. ProQuest One  Academic, doi:https://doi-org.uwinnipeg.idm.oclc.org/10.1108/13619321211289290.
  2. “Mental Health Basics.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 28 June 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/learn/index.htm. 
  3. “What Is Therapy.” Mental Health America, Mental Health America,  https://www.mhanational.org/therapy. 

Photos:

1. Underworld, Emily. Unsplash, 24 May 2021, https://unsplash.com/photos/Ko3EMBFggok?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditShareLink.

2. Weermeijer, Robina. Unsplash, 5 June 2019, https://unsplash.com/photos/3KGF9R_0oHs.3. Sikkema, Kelly. Unsplash, 16 January 2020, https://unsplash.com/photos/XX2WTbLr3r8.