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New charity to take aim at mental illness

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

The crusading head of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, Michael Kirby, has unveiled his latest endeavour: a charitable organization he hopes will rival powerhouses like the Canadian Cancer Society and the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

Like the more established groups, Mental Health Partnerships of Canada will focus on raising money for research through a combination of corporate donations and grassroots projects and, in the process, it hopes to raise the profile of mental illnesses like depression, bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia.

“A national charity and a national army of volunteers are critical if we want to keep mental illness out of the shadows forever,” Mr. Kirby said.

The new organization will operate at arm's length from the Mental Health Commission, which has a 10-year, $130-million budget funded by the federal government and a $110-million research budget.

Mr. Kirby said Mental Health Partnerships of Canada has created a “strategic alliance” with the Canadian Psychiatric Research Foundation (a charity that has been around since 1980) that provides infrastructure, a process for vetting and funding research proposals, and the ability to issue tax receipts for charitable donations.

The next step is to increase the level of charitable contributions dramatically, and Mr. Kirby said that will be done by creating a “social movement” of volunteers.

“Eventually, we will have some organized fundraising activity – our equivalent of the Run for the Cure,” he said.

Mr. Kirby conceded that will take time, and a lot of effort. “We're going to have to make the pie a lot bigger,” he said.

But he is convinced that the issue has traction because so many people are affected.

One in five Canadians will suffer from a serious bout of mental illness at some point in their lives.

Yet, the stigma associated with mental illness means the issue rarely gets its due.

For example, nearly $400-million is invested in cancer research in Canada each year, compared to about $125-million for mental health research.

More striking still is the role of charities. Last year, the Canadian Psychiatric Research Foundation, the biggest player in the field, invested $147,200 in research, while the Canadian Cancer Society invested $44.7-million, and it is just one of many big cancer charities.

Kevin McNeil, chairman of the Canadian Psychiatric Research Foundation, said he was excited at the potential for the new charity. “This alliance and major new thrust in fundraising will have a transformational impact on the mental health sector in our country,” he said.

Mr. Kirby, for his part, acknowledged that the current economic crisis will make fundraising all the more difficult, but said that is not a major obstacle.

“It will be slow-going at the beginning but we're looking at the long-term picture.

“Mental health issues are not going away any time soon.”

Research published earlier this year estimated that mental illness costs the economy $51-billion annually, including $23-billion in medical bills, disability and sick leaves, and another $28-billion was attributed to a reduction in health-related quality of life.

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