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Her Excellency Sharon Johnston - Honorary Doctorate from the University of Manitoba

Winnipeg, Thursday, May 18, 2017


We are here today to celebrate our new doctors. You are the men and women who will keep Canada a healthy nation. It is especially touching to be with you while receiving an honorary degree in the year of our hundred and fiftieth birthday. You won’t forget the year you graduated.

Convocations are quite familiar to me. I have spent the last forty years married to a professor, a dean and a university president—all the same man! That in itself is an accomplishment.

David and I were fortunate to grow up in Sault Ste. Marie. Northern Ontario is much like Manitoba with large lakes, forests and streams. Nature grounds us, as it has the Aboriginal inhabitants of these areas for many centuries. Like the Sault, Winnipeg has a large Indigenous population. There is a health crisis among our first peoples, and I hope some among you will address this in your professional capacity. 

For a moment, I’d like to return to the days when I was your age. I belonged to the Woodstock generation, where anything and everything seemed possible. Fresh out of university, I worked as a psychiatric occupational therapist in one of those now obsolete, large mental institutions. Patients were being discharged into society after long incarcerations in mental hospitals. Many of these patients, estranged from their families, became homeless and ended up in another institution… jail.

My working career was cut short by fast-track reproduction. We had five daughters in seven years. I do not recommend this practice. Only when I look back can I find this situation amusing. I was overwhelmed and, with my husband’s career soaring, felt like a single parent. As many do, I went to my doctor for help. And I got it. Within six months of receiving counselling, I no longer felt anxious or angry. As important, I felt physically well. I had become a dedicated runner, clocking six miles a day. Without that doctor’s wise counsel, I doubt I would be standing before you today. There is nothing wrong with needing psychological help. What is wrong is not asking for it.

It has been serendipity to be travelling with David over the past seven years, criss-crossing our country to learn about the many innovative approaches to treating mental health problems. We have seen great advances in the areas of homelessness, youth suicide, emerging adults, families, Indigenous people and just about every suffering part of society. 

The Mental Health Commission of Canada assesses the present mental health crisis in our country as seven million Canadians facing mental health issues at an annual cost of $50 billion. That’s $4,000 per person per year. These statistics don’t account for the disruption of individuals and families as they battle against an illness they are afraid to acknowledge.

Yet we have made great strides in reducing the stigma in the military, public service and workforce. The last two clerks of the Privy Council—the office of Canada’s senior public servant—have declared mental health a priority for the federal public service. Despite these positive objectives, we know that medical patients suffering mental health problems will get significantly less care than those who present with physical problems alone.

As a doctor, you will be one of the most respected persons in your community. You will be a community leader. As you begin your career or go on to specialize further, I invite you to remember three simple things.

First, when you start your medical practice, don’t hire a cranky receptionist. Find one receptive to mental health issues, and who sounds welcoming. Then go out into the community to find out what mental health resources exist. Or at least send a trusted member of your staff to do so. Even patients you cannot treat directly will benefit greatly when referred to people who can help them address their problem. It will take less of your time to refer a patient once to a helpful resource than to see that patient on repeat visits.

Second, socialize the issue of mental health among your peers. They, too, will need support. The unique stresses on those who serve in the medical professions are as great or greater than any other profession. Fatigue, burnout, family stress and coping behaviours including alcohol and drugs are as prevalent in health care circles as anywhere. Be open to each other. Listen to each other. Support each other. The healers must heal themselves.

Third, be honest with yourself. You are entering a profession with notoriously high demands. And yet as a medical professional, you are a precious Canadian resource that we cannot afford to see damaged. It is right and honourable to ask for help if you need it. Set a leading example by summoning the courage to seek assistance early. Then learn from that experience in ways you can pass on.

So there it is. Just three bits of advice, really. Where mental health is concerned, be helpful to your patients, supportive of your peers and kind to yourself. You can’t go wrong.

Thank you for the honour you have given me today. I am delighted to be in your company and proud to call you all colleagues in the pursuit of better health for all.