One of Dr. Zahn’s goals as president and CEO of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) is to shine the spotlight on mental health issues. Her recent “Communicator of the Year” award (handed out by the Toronto chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators) suggests she’s doing a darn good job. We sat down with Zahn to discuss stigma, celebrity addicts, and CAMH’s recent influx of corporate support.
It seems we’re hearing a lot more about pharmaceutical drug abuse these days as opposed to street drugs.
Tobacco and alcohol are still the biggest substance abuse problems, but, yes, we’ve been reading about OxyContin in the newspaper lately. It has a lot of positive applications in terms of chronic pain relief, but it’s also highly addictive. I can’t give you the exact statistics, but it’s an enormous problem, especially in certain communities.
There are significant pockets of opiate addictions in our aboriginal populations, and in remote communities. Is it a bigger problem than, say, a drug like heroin? It probably is, but I don’t have the numbers at my fingertips.
And what are the reasons for the rise?
One of the obvious reasons would be availability and prescribing practices. When my son got his wisdom teeth out he was given a bottle of pain pills. He took one when he got home and one when he went to bed, but then he called me because he was worried. The pills were Vicodin and he knew it was dangerous because that’s what House is addicted to on the TV show.
Since you brought up pop culture—how, if at all, does something like Whitney Houston’s recent alleged overdose affect your job?
When a famous person dies because of addiction, or if they commit suicide, it brings the issues into the forefront of the public discourse, which is important.
Would a celebrity overdose prompt a rise in people coming to CAMH for treatment?
I don’t have specifics there, but I can say that when mental health is in the spotlight for whatever reason, we do get more visits. When Amy Winehouse died last summer, there was a lot of attention, not only because of her death, but also because Russell Brand made such a beautiful and meaningful statement in the aftermath. He said that addictions are not a crime and they’re not a romantic affectation. They are an illness and they can kill you. That’s what people need to understand.
I guess it comes back to this issue of stigma, though I gather you’re not a fan of that word.
I just feel that it’s important to promote language that challenges the assumptions we make about people with mental illness. Instead of stigma, we need to talk about prejudice and discrimination. I had a patient recently who was having depression surrounding a personal problem. I know the company she works for provides great insurance so I asked if she wanted me to help coordinate that, but she was worried that someone would find out and that she would be fired. Even though this is one of the reasons we have insurance—and, of course, medical issues are supposed to be private—she was still worried.
How important is something like the recent Bell Canada Let’s Talk mental-health awareness campaign?
It’s fantastic. First of all, just the symbolism of an iconic Canadian corporation like Bell putting their face on the issue is a big step, and then to have their support in terms of the funding—of the $50 million they’ve identified for supporting mental health care and research, $10 million of that is allocated to CAMH. We are thrilled and, of course, there is the hope that we can leverage the donations with other organizations. Things start to snowball.
Last year, you received a $30-million donation from members of the Thomson family. What did you mean when you said that this “changes the landscape” of mental health and addiction research?
I meant that it’s a singular moment in time in terms of what we will be able to do with this kind of funding. It’s only been in the past 10 years that we’ve started to understand how the brain actually functions as opposed to what it looks like. We’ve also learned that the brain can change and remold itself, which we didn’t used to think was possible. Obviously, the implications of that are huge.
Is something like schizophrenia visible on a brain scan?
Right now we are able to detect risk factors for addiction and depression, and eventually we will be able to do the same for conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I was a resident when the first CAT scan became available, so it’s pretty crazy to have lived through such a period of progress. It would be sort of like coming of age during the invention of the car.
Can you talk a bit about the development that’s been going on at the CAMH campus in the past few years?
My favourite part is the streets that now run through the whole area. We have sidewalks and streetlamps. The next phase is a streetscape, which will look very much like the rest of West Queen West. Some of the buildings will be leased out. There will be affordable housing as well as street-level shops. You have to remember that the property was originally surrounded by a wall—closed off physically and also ideologically. We don’t think like that anymore.
Bubble bath or hot shower?
Person you’d most like to meet?
Prince William or Prince Harry?
Both are a little young.
Favourite addiction memoir?
Life by Keith Richards.
Always in your fridge?
Soy chocolate milk.
Beach or mountain vacation?
How do you like your eggs?