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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health
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On May 20, I sat down for a candid, wide-ranging virtual discussion with Health Minister Patty Hajdu. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, she has become a familiar face in living rooms across the country as she faithfully provides daily briefings to keep the people in Canada up to date on the tireless public health response mounted by the federal government.
It’s fitting, then, that our meeting began just as fire alarm testing in her building got underway. Apologetic and with wry wit, the minister admitted that working from home isn’t the idyll we’d all imagined.
As the siren wails periodically, I’m reminded that she has been answering the call of a national emergency without respite since January 15. I wanted to know what that experience has been like for her, not only as a politician, but also as a person.
I begin by asking her how she’s doing. Her frank response mirrors a reality many of us can relate to. “Honestly, it depends on the day. And I think it’s so important to normalize feelings of fear, frustration, anger, and anxiety. Those feeling aren’t exclusive to a pandemic either. We’re liable to experience them just about any time. But right now, of course, everything is heightened.”
That’s why, she goes on to say, it was so important for the federal government to step in and create a free, readily available mental health portal, Wellness Together Canada. But this isn’t just a policy response. It’s also a decision born from the personal and professional experience of the policy makers who put the wheels in motion.
Not only has Hajdu worked with vulnerable populations as the head of a shelter in Thunder Bay, she’s also walked the lonely road of single parenting and knows that half the battle of accessing care, when your own resources are about to run dry, is just getting there.
“I used to have to haul my kids out of school and disrupt my own work to get our family the counselling it needed,” she explained. “Virtual care hurdles so many of these barriers, and it also guards against people feeling their privacy might be compromised. As someone who has lived in a rural community, I know how hard it can be to get professional advice from someone you haven’t seen at the hockey rink or run into at the school.”
Wellness Together Canada is based largely on Stepped Care 2.0 — a model that integrates self-help tools, e-mental health, and other technologies with conventional primary mental health care — developed by Dr. Peter Cornish at Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador and championed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
“We’re really striving to let people know this care is available,” said Hajdu. “When I hear about communities pooling their funding to raise money to access psychotherapies, I wish there was more we could do to alert people that we’ve got an entire toolbox at their disposal.”
But the minister is quick to point out additional resources aren’t a panacea. “I think the pandemic has revealed, broadly speaking, what those of us toiling in the annals of mental health have known for a very long time. If you don’t have the basic dignity of a house to live in, if you don’t have a job from which you derive self-worth, and if you aren’t connected to community, all the tools in the world aren’t going to fix your problems.”
An impassioned advocate for the most vulnerable, Hajdu became visibly distressed at the suggestion that counselling can be of service to those whose basic needs are not being met.
Content Warning: sexual abuse
“I’m going to go out on a limb here,” she said, clearly speaking as someone who has seen the gritty reality of homelessness. “It’s bordering on unethical to offer counselling to a woman being raped at a shelter she’s got no choice but to stay at. We need to get her out of that environment and get her safe. Then we can talk about dealing with her trauma.”
Hajdu’s authenticity is palpable, even through Zoom. And I’m not alone in feeling it. When I ask her what has given her hope during these difficult times, she doesn’t hesitate.
“You know, I have hard days. Days when I miss my spouse and my kids. Days when, like everyone else, I am just craving that human connection,” she said, explaining that the demands of her job have upended her routine, keeping her in the nation’s capital for weeks on end and preventing her from seeing her family in Thunder Bay. “But then I get an email from someone who tells me I’m doing a good job.” Here, her eyes shine, and I don’t think it’s from the screen’s glare, though I can’t be sure.
“When someone reaches out, despite whatever it is they may be dealing with, and offers me kind words of encouragement, I’m reminded that, while it might be harder to do right now, being kind is just the essence of what is going to get us through this. We might be a little tattered and torn, but it’s the connection, the sense of community we have as a country, that’s going to be our saving grace.”
Speaking of community, Hajdu reflects on the efforts of an organization in her hometown that successfully pivoted from its gardening program for at-risk youth to creating a lunch program for kids without access to school meals.
“They didn’t know if they were going to have funding for this. They just mobilized volunteers and stepped into the breach. It’s inspiring.”
One could argue that Hajdu herself has done much the same. “I was never prepared for this,” she admitted. “And we’re learning as we go. But I think we’re learning some really important things. We’re learning how to innovate faster. We’re learning how to work better together across jurisdictions and across party lines. And we’re learning that we’re all maybe a lot stronger than we thought we were.”
I end by asking the minster to describe her experience at the helm of what is arguably the most important and challenging portfolio in all of government . . . in three words.
She pauses. But, as ever, rises to the challenge. “Today, I would say intense, inspiring, and optimistic. Intense, I think is obvious. Inspiring because we’ve pulled together, and optimistic because I believe we are resilient enough to emerge from this not just different, but better.”
The fire alarm is still sounding when we finish our call, reminding me that the minister’s job is far from over.
If you are in distress, please contact your nearest distress centre or rape crisis centre. If it is an emergency, call 9-1-1 or go to your local emergency department.
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