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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

Donovan Taplin harnesses the power of lived experience 

Back in the spring, at the height of the pandemic, Donovan Taplin happened to see that the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) was seeking a new board director.

“The timing was perfect,” said Taplin. “The bulk of my work as vice-chair of the technical committee in charge of developing the post-secondary standard for student mental health was behind me, but I felt that my contribution was just getting started.”

Louise Bradley, president and CEO of the MHCC, strongly agreed. “I first heard Donovan speak at Newfoundland and Labrador’s provincewide youth mental health conference in 2015, and his talk still resonates with me today.”

But when Taplin recalls his first meeting with Bradley, it’s not the view from the podium that comes to mind. “At that point, I had shared my struggles with mental illness with just one close friend, and now I was about to get on a stage and share those struggles with hundreds of strangers. I was terrified. Then, a woman seated next to me took my hand (she could see I was trembling) and whispered, ‘You don’t have to do this. If you aren’t ready, I’ll wave that MC away, and they’ll figure out a Plan B. I’ll be right here with you.’”

Bradley smiled when hearing of Taplin’s recollection. “It’s a reminder, I think, that while kindness costs us nothing, the result can be priceless — and that’s certainly the case with Donovan’s advocacy.”

Taplin said that those grounding words propelled him onto the stage that day, which has since opened the doors to sharing some of the wisdom born from lived experience.

“I grew up on a rural island community in Newfoundland and Labrador (N.L.). I didn’t have clinical or social support or even a language to discuss how debilitated and overwhelmed I was when it came to my mental health. I also knew that I was queer, and that feeling unsafe and unaccepted was contributing to how unwell I felt all the time. Eventually, I took a boat to St. John’s for my first therapy session, even though I was afraid that my being queer would be a valid reason for refusing to treat me. Thankfully, I was wrong and that’s when my recovery began.”

Here, Taplin paused to emphasize that the discrimination 2sLGBTQ+ people face isn’t a relic of the past.

“After my undergrad, just a few years ago, my partner and I moved to Toronto — a city that represented all the things I craved: inclusivity, progressive values, rich diversity. And yet my first experience with the city was being denied an apartment, explicitly because I was part of a same-sex couple.” 

Taplin has since stayed in the city following graduate studies to work at the University of Toronto’s Health and Wellness Centre but is now sometimes feeling the weight of shifting roles.

“On the one hand, I’ve just been one of the most prominent student voices on the committee that set out to transform how post-secondary students are supported at colleges and universities. On the other, my current work with administrators lets me see some of the institutional challenges involved. Those will take time to unravel before we can realize something closer to the wellness-driven community envisioned in the Student Standard.”

Taplin explained that the Student Standard is meant to be a bridge, a means to get students together with the administration to co-create higher-learning communities where students aren’t left on their own to navigate a complicated system.

Such efforts on the National Standard of Canada: Mental Health and Well-Being for Post-Secondary Students were recently recognized through a CSA Group Young Professional Award, which acknowledged Taplin’s compassionate and dedicated leadership.

The governance skills needed to co-lead the Student Standard technical committee took root at the tender age of 19, when Taplin was elected as a town councillor for Wabana, Bell Island, N.L. In that role, they helped establish the community’s first recognition of Mental Illness Awareness Week as well as Pride Month. Since that time, Taplin’s ability to effect positive change is reflected in positions on the Premier’s Youth Advisory Committee (N.L.) and the Prime Minister’s Youth Council.

That spirit of creating improved circumstances for all is what drew Taplin to the MHCC’s board. “I see the organization as a bit of a lantern, showing individuals, organizations, and governments a way forward toward improved policy, better access, and ultimately, parity in funding.”

Bradley concurred. “We can only burn as brightly as the hearts and minds that fuel our work. There is no doubt in my mind that Donovan is going to challenge us and buoy us up. In some ways, I have watched Donovan grow up — certainly I’ve witnessed very formative years. One thing I know for sure: the future of mental health advocacy is in good hands.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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