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Psychiatric survivors continue to fight against the stigma of mental illness

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On a sweltering July afternoon over 50 people reunited under the shade of the maple trees on the grounds of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, where they've gathered yearly over the past 18 years, to create awareness about mental health issues.  

They hung around, chatted and waited for the speeches to begin before the start of  the fifth annual Bed Push, symbolic of going to a safe place where there is no forced treatment, and then paraded west across Queen Street to the Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre.

It's the final event of Toronto Mad Pride Week, designed to educate, raise awareness, diminish isolation and diffuse the power of the stigma of mental illness. Mad Pride began in Parkdale and is now celebrated around the world.

The first event was held in 1993 in response to local community prejudices towards psychiatric survivors living in rooming houses in Parkdale. By the late 1990s, similar events were being held around the world.

The bed was parked amongst the crowd. It was a regular hospital bed with a blue mattress, adjustable side rails and wheels. On the bed, a light blue teddy bear nestled up against one of the rails. A fake stuffed person lay on the bed face up under a white blanket.

A woman handed out signs that said "Don't Let Anyone Define You" and "Personality is not a Straightjacket." 

NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo, Toronto councillor Gord Perks and NDP MP Peggy Nash mingled with participants, waiting for the festivities to begin.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) is Canada's largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital and also claims to be one of the world's leading research centres in the area of addiction and mental health. 

It was originally named the Provincial Lunatic Asylum but over the years it's been referred to as 999 Queen Street and the Asylum for the Insane, Toronto. Now it's called the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health or simply CAMH.

It's in the midst of a massive redevelopment project now but plans to maintain the crumbling, black stained Heritage Wall running along the west side of the property.

Just outside the wall on the corner of Queen and Shaw, a plaque was erected last year in memory of the patient labourers who were used extensively in the construction of the yellow bricked walls that once fully enclosed the 50 acre property.

Opened in 1850, the first patients were transferred from the Temporary Asylum, which was housed in a former jail on King Street.

"This is always the day when I feel safest and happiest and most respected because I'm among a group of people who love each other for who they are," said Gord Perks, City Councillor, Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park

It's also the day when the group marched in the community to express their view that everyone deserves the right to independent advocacy.

In Parkdale and across the province, the NDP's Peggy Nash promised to ensure that independent advocacy for psychiatric survivors remains intact because she believes it saves lives.

Shortly after the Ontario legislature adjourned for the summer and without public consultation, the Liberals decided to integrate the Psychiatric Patient Advocate Office's rights advice and advocacy services with the Canadian Mental Health Association's community-based mental health services.

"The Psychiatric Patient Advocate Office was their watchdog, their voice, their first line of defence against being involuntarily drugged, restrained and subjected to excessive force by the police," wrote Carol Goar, Editorial Board member of the Toronto Star in her July 12 column.

"But their concern went deeper than that. By embedding the Psychiatric Patience Advocate Office in the Canadian Mental Health Association -- the main provider of outpatient services for people with mental disorders -- the province was creating a serious conflict of interest. How could a patients' advocate criticize the organization to which it belonged? How could it speak out when it was part of the health-care delivery system?"

Goar said, "Most Ontarians don't know the Psychiatric Patient Advocate Office exists. But to people with mental disabilities and their families, it is as important as the Ontario Human Rights Commission or the provincial ombudsman."

On Monday, NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo and supporters demonstrated outside the provincial government offices at Bay and Wellesley against the McGuinty Liberals decision to hand over the Psychiatric Patient Advocacy Office, an independent provincial agency, to the Canadian Mental Health Association - Ontario.

"That's absolutely uncalled for," said DiNovo at the Bed Push on Saturday. "It's an absolutely retrograde move and I'll do everything in my power to reverse that after October 6 when the House sits again."

DiNovo has also been heavily involved with the fight to de-list electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), otherwise known as electroshock.

"This is a treatment that's aimed mainly at women," said DiNovo. "But if you want it, just like other invasive non-essential surgeries, you should pay for it. Certainly what we need is pharmacare. We do not need shock treatment."

Psychiatric survivor David Reville emerged from the crowd and walked towards the microphone wearing a black t-shirt that said "Warning: May Contain Nuts" in big red letters. He's a former NDP MPP who now teaches part-time in the School of Disability Studies at Ryerson University.

"There's good nuts and bad nuts as we know," said Reville. "We've got some bad political nuts in our country right now."

Within hours of the Liberals' "secret decision" to transfer the Psychiatric Patient Advocacy Office to the Canadian Mental Health Association – Ontario, psychiatric survivors had organized the Coalition for an Independent Psychiatric Patient Advocate Office, demanding that the decision be rescinded and that the Minister of Health schedule a meeting with the Coalition and other key stakeholders.

Reville believes that advocacy can't be mixed up with care because sometimes it's the care that you need to advocate against.

"How many of you have been put on the floor by four guys and had a needle shoved in your ass?" asked Reville.

Several people raised their hands.

The Coalition still hasn't met with Minister of Health Deb Matthews. But they won't give up trying. In the meantime, they've set up a Facebook group called Psychiatric Patient Advocacy Must Be Independent and a website.

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