The new face of mental health services in the London area can be defined in many ways, but he is quick to admit one thing he isn’t.
“I am not one of those fairweather Leafs fans who only watches them when they’re winning,” said Dr. Stephen Harrison, the recently hired CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Middlesex. “I have found through my career I get drawn in a lot of different directions and so being committed to a team is not easy to do. If I’m going to follow someone, I’m going to follow them.”
The announcement of Harrison’s hiring came through a statement released on Jan. 19 on behalf of Claudia Mior-Eckel, CMHA Middlesex board chair.
Harrison’s first official day on the job won’t be until Monday, March 7, as he’s still wrapping up his role as chief operating officer at the College of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan.
As he and his wife, Kanwall, prepare for the move back to Ontario, Harrison took the time to share not only why he has the qualifications for the job, but also where his passion for mental health services comes from.
One of those reasons stems from his work with the Ontario Medical Association and mental health advocate Michael Wilson, who Harrison calls “a real champion” for the sector.
He also has his own personal and professional experiences with mental health.
“My family, too, has been touched by mental illness, so there is that personal perspective, as well. That’s what got me into mental health, going back 10, 15 years now,” Harrison said.
“I’ve worked in a community health centre, I’ve worked in the development disability arena, I’ve worked in home care, and the consistent theme throughout that is that community-based mental health services were a part of all of them.”
He has also conducted extensive research in China on social indicators of health, and volunteered in Rwanda supporting relief efforts after the tragic 1994 civil war.
Not long after former CEO Don Seymour moved on in August 2015, Harrison took notice of the opening at CMHA Middlesex. Come late October, early November, and after discussing what a potential move would mean with his wife, he really began to focus on what he could accomplish in such a position.
“I really wanted to be a part of what they represent,” he said. “But more importantly, I really want to be a part of the solution for community mental health services.”
Born in Toronto, Harrison spent much of his life living and working overseas.
He has brought that experience to his career across Canada over the last 15 years, and is looking forward to setting down roots in London.
That could seem a daunting task to some, but Harrison admits to having an important advantage.
“I know London; my mom has lived there for 25 or 30 years now. I have been back and forth fairly frequently, although she would probably say not nearly enough,” he said. “We are very familiar with the Ontario context. We are really looking forward to moving back.”
Consensus building will be a priority, along with getting to know everyone in the organization from “the person at the front door, to the people working the after-hours shifts,” and — most importantly — advocating for the resources to provide the mental health services the community needs.
But while there are many professional aspects of the job he’s excited about, it’s his personal experiences he might be most looking forward to.
“We have friends, family throughout the area; we look forward to reconnecting with them,” Harrison said. “We might be a little more unknown to the community, but something tells me that will change dramatically.”