The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) is one of the oldest continuing voluntary health organizations in Canada. This year, we celebrate our 100th anniversary as the nation-wide leader and champion for mental health.
CMHA began existence as the Canadian National Committee for Mental Hygiene (CNCMH), founded by Dr. Clarence M. Hincks and Clifford W. Beers in January 26, 1918. Hincks was very interested in the field because he himself had experienced mental illness.
January 1918: Humble beginnings in the aftermath of World War I
The Globe and Mail reported the group’s formation under the headline: $20,000 Secured for Institute: Canadian National Committee for Mental Hygiene Started in Mrs. Dunlap’s Home
As tentatively described at that first meeting, the purposes and objectives of the CNCHM included:
- War Work (a) Psychiatric examination of recruits (b) Adequate care of returned soldiers suffering from mental disabilities
- Mental examination of immigrants (post-war) to ensure a better selection of newcomers
- Adequate facilities for the diagnosis and treatment of cases of mental disease
- Adequate care of the mentally deficient
- Prevention of mental disease and deficiency
Hincks solicited friends and professionals to join the committee, with an emphasis on those in the medical profession. He already had the backing of C.K. Clarke, Dean of Medicine and Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto; his persuasive address to the medical faculty of McGill won him its unanimous approval.
Hincks invited 20 business and professional leaders to sit on the Board of Directors; 18 accepted. Among them were Lord Shaughnessy, President of the CPR; Richard B. Angus, Montreal financier and philanthropist; Dr. C.F. Martin, Professor of Medicine, McGill University; Sir Vincent Meredith, President, Bank of Montreal; and F.W. Molson, President of Molson’s Brewery. Each agreed to pledge $1,000 a year for three years towards the expenses of the new organization.
Spring 1918: Building support through the power of the personal story
Hincks gained further support through an innovative series of “drawing-room meetings.” These were afternoon teas hosted by socially prominent women, each of whom invited her wealthy and influential friends. Hincks would present as a speaker his friend and co-founder Clifford W. Beers, author of the book A Mind That Found Itself. It gave a graphic account of Beers’ own mental illness and the treatment he received, some of it rather abusive.
Hincks’s extended the strategy to homes of friends in Quebec City, Montreal and Ottawa. It proved very successful: he recruited an impressive list of potential members and donors.
The first official meeting of the CNCMH was held in Ottawa on April 26, 1918, where a provisional constitution was adopted. Dr C.F. Martin, Professor of Medicine at McGill University, was elected President. Dr C.K. Clarke was appointed Medical Director, and Dr. C.M. Hincks was appointed Associate Medical Director and Secretary.
In the fall of 1918, the Committee established itself at 143 College St. in Toronto. Joining Clarke and Hincks were Miss Marjorie Keyes, a graduate nurse, and two secretaries, Anne Abbot and Doris Secord.
Fall 1918: Advocating for better systems of care
Lieutenant Colonel Colin Russel, the consultant neurologist to the Department of Soldiers, soon gave the CNCMH an opportunity to undertake an important project. Russel had visited many of the provincial mental hospitals which were caring for soldier patients and was particularly distressed with those facilities in Manitoba.
Together, Hincks and Keyes visited several institutions in Winnipeg. They were so shocked by what they found that they immediately returned to Winnipeg to consult with government representatives. The CNCMH prepared a confidential report on its findings which was submitted to the government and the Public Welfare Commission. As a result of the province’s quick response in implementing the recommendations, other provinces became interested in having similar surveys.
In its first five years, the CNCMH built a firm foundation for meeting the objectives established in 1918. Surveys on the care and treatment of people suffering from mental disorders were conducted in every province. Mental hospitals in all provinces, except Ontario and Quebec, were inspected at the request of provincial governments.
The extent of mental illness was found to be greater than expected, and preventive programs were non-existent. In accordance with the committee’s recommendations, provincial governments spent over six million dollars on improving facilities for people with mental illness.
Further surveys focusing on screening and treatment for soldiers and children highlighted the case for specialized supports. The Department of Soldiers and the Director General of Medical Services in the army worked together to address rehabilitation for soldiers with mental illness. CNCMH surveys of schoolchildren resulted in over 150 special classes for children with intellectual disabilities being established by school boards.
A beginning was made on public and professional education in mental health in Canada.
1952 and beyond: Supporting communities in BC
Over the years, provincial, regional and community CMHAs have been established across Canada, providing an array of community-specific services and supports. CMHA’s BC Division (CMHA BC) was founded 1952, with the assistance of Clarence M. Hincks, and officially incorporated on October 6, 1953. CMHA BC volunteers became involved in the support of patients at Riverview Hospital and ran the thrift store.
Throughout its history, CMHA BC has advocated for changes to legislation and policy affecting people with a mental illness that ensured the availability of community alternatives, access to housing, and income supports. Through this work, CMHA BC has played an important role in the reform of the mental health care system in BC.
CMHA BC is proud to be part of a network of CMHA branches in communities across BC whose grassroots involvement and direct services – such as housing, employment services, crisis lines, and support groups to name a few – have touched the lives of countless British Columbians.
We are especially proud to celebrate the 100th anniversary of CMHA this year. Throughout a century of much change, we remain deeply rooted in embracing the voice of people with lived experience of mental illness and addictions, collaborating with and within communities, using evidence to inform our work, and working to improve mental health for all.