Past Conference

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Deconstructing Normal:
Top 10 Moments of the #MH4A Conference

What is and is not “normal” is so entrenched in our everyday lives that we often don’t stop to question – or even notice – it. Normal child development. Normal responses to grief. Social norms. Normal sexual development. Age-appropriate behaviour. Normal symptoms of depression. Normal stresses of life.

Our understandings of what is supposedly normal and abnormal have been cemented into society, and into how we live.

But the pandemic has disrupted what we deem normal. And it has impacted all of our lives. In fact, 41% of people in Canada reported deteriorated mental health since the pandemic hit.[1]

The past 23 months have had many of us yearning for “normal”. But what is normal? What if normal was what got us here? In our pre-pandemic society, “normal” included systemic racism, insecurity in housing, food and employment, and an inadequate mental healthcare system. How can these be “normal”?

So we reached out to those who question normal in their work and in their lives and asked them to join us for two days of discussion, collaboration and learning at the 6th Annual Mental Health for All Conference.

Ground-breaking speakers, engaging breakout sessions, insightful extra-curriculars, and the support of our sponsors and exhibitors, made for a remarkable event.

If you’re experiencing “FOMO” (fear of missing out) right now, don’t fret. Here are our top 10 favourite moments..

1. Going beyond land acknowledgements with Reid Hartry
Doing justice to our theme, Reid Hartry, a retired social worker, Métis Elder, and former member of our Board of Directors, took conference attendees far past a “normal” land acknowledgement, because a land acknowledgement must be more than an empty gesture, or a box to check off.

2. Undoing normal: The store of CMHA Peel Dufferin
Lisa Ali, Senior Director of Clinical Strategy and Services at CMHA Peel Dufferin, spoke with CMHA National CEO, Margaret Eaton, about how her CMHA branch navigated COVID-19.

CMHA Peel Dufferin serves a diverse population in southern Ontario. The pandemic brought a surge in mental health needs at their front door and through their 24/7 crisis service. In 2020 alone, they received over 60,000 calls. The branch committed to – and succeeded in – responding to anyone who called within 24 hours to meet the immediate needs of their community. And they did so much more. Staff went into long-term care facilities, quarantine sites, and into the neighbourhoods that were hardest-hit by COVID-19 to help stabilize the healthcare system.

3. Embracing an Uncertain Future for Mental Health and Substance Use Services
Keynote speaker Dr. Javeed Sukhera walked us through our flawed mental healthcare system reminding us that our system isn’t broken: it was actually built this way. It has become normal in Canada to treat people in the mental health system as second-class citizens.

In order to create a new mental health system, the people who work within it must share trust, power and humanity .

4. Learning from Canada’s youth: a panel discussion
The best part of conferences? Gathering with colleagues, friends and mentors. This year, though, we weren’t confined by the spaces of the conference hall. We didn’t need to rush down hallways or search out quiet rooms for meetings. This year’s

Youth mental health specialist, Lisa Wood moderated three youth panelists:

  • Stacie Smith
    Founder, COVID-19 PSE Support Network Executive Director, Young Canadians Roundtable on Health
  • Alex San Diego
    Youth Engagement Coordinator & Communications Coordinator, Kickstand Alberta
  • Cindy Qiu
    Student, University of Waterloo

who laid bare their personal mental health struggles, and their difficulties navigating the system, arguing for the importance of involving youth in decisions about how that system should work. According to the panelists, the ideal mental health system would be affordable, timely, anti-oppressive, with culturally appropriate programs and services, and accessible peer support.

5. Extra curriculars: Yoga, Mediation, Story time, Mindfulness, Networking sessions
A virtual conference shouldn’t mean you have to miss out on the perks of an in-person gathering. Here are the extra-curriculars that attendees enjoyed:

  • Prioritizing Yourself with Mindfulness, mindful deep breathing exercise
    Dima Devana, BounceBack Program Manager, CMHA New Brunswick

Dima recalled the past 18 months reminding us that it’s okay to be upset that it didn’t go as planned. We’re allowed to feel uncomfortable, and it’s important to sit with unpleasant emotions. It’s part of being human.

  • Yoga for Wellness & Recovery
    Evonne Sullivan, BA, CHRL, RYT, Yoga Teacher & Speaker

Evonne led a mindful yoga practice incorporating movement, relaxation and techniques and tools for grounding and stress reduction.

  • Storytime with Amour Love

Fredericton drag performer, Amour Love, known for reading children’s stories about mental health and self-esteem every Sunday night at CMHA New Brunswick, hosted her own storytelling event, sharing her struggles and success and the importance self-care and self-love.

  • Guided Meditation: Focusing with Compassion
    Scott Ste Marie, Depression to Expression, Founder/Speaker/Podcast Host/Content Creator/Human

In this guided meditation, Scott helped us exercise our muscles – but not the usual kind:  our self-love and compassion muscles. The more we work them, the stronger we get and the easier it becomes.

  • Networking

Ask someone why they attend conferences, and you’ll often hear the term “networking.” The MH4A Conference made it a central feature, with virtual networking rooms and topics galore, including:

  • Self-care practices
  • Workplace mental health
  • A discussion on body image, eating disorders and how to redefine media messages on health
  • CMHA Connection for CMHA staff or volunteers
  • An open conversation: Persons with lived experience
  • Sleep: The Ultimate Biohack for Mental Health
  • BIPOC communities and mental health
  • Knowledge exchange: sharing local program best practices
  • Parental mental health – understanding ourselves to support our children (of any age)
  • Youth mental health
  • Séance de réseautage francophone

6. Stacy-Ann Buchanan: The Blind Stigma
Mental health advocate, filmmaker, TEDx speaker and actress

Keynote speaker, Stacy-Ann Buchanan, wowed her listeners with her mental health experience of navigating mental illness within the Black community, where she experienced tons of stigma.

It is, as she described it, a “veil of shame.” In The Blind Stigma, her award-winning documentary film and podcast series, Stacy-Ann interviews Black individuals about their mental health experiences, helping to undo the shame.

7. Concurrent sessions
Concurrent sessions are the heart of the MH4A Conference, where front-line workers, service providers, researchers, people with lived experience, activists and policymakers come together to share their knowledge and wisdom. Sessions dealt with intimate partner violence, burnout, South Asian mental health, Indigenous Perspectives on Wellness, Dialectical Behavioural Therapy and a whole series of other topics.

8. Carol Hopkins
Keynote speaker Dr. Carol Hopkins deepened the conversation on reconciliation and what it means for mental health and wellness among Indigenous peoples According to Dr. Hopkins, true reconciliation requires awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes and action to change behaviour.

9. Panel: Mental Health Standards
A plenary panel on national mental health standards explored both why we need them and why we need them now.

Given the federal government’s recent commitment to create new standards for mental health services , the panelists explained how they will help secure funding, provide quality control, ensure accountability, and help us measure success.

The panel was moderated by Jonny Morris, CEO at CMHA BC Division. The panelists included:

  • Dr. Mary Bartram, PhD, RSW
    Policy Director, Mental Health Commission of Canada
  • Christine Babcock
    Director of Quality, Performance and Risk, Privacy Officer, CMHA Elgin Middlesex
  • Tarek Rajji
    Professor of Psychiatry & Executive Director, Toronto Dementia Research Alliance, University of Toronto Canada Research Chair in Neurostimulation for Cognitive Disorders, Chief, Adult Neurodevelopment and Geriatric Psychiatry Division Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

10. Vu Le

Levity was on the agenda in the close out keynote of the MH4A Conference, with Vu Le, known for his blog NonprofitAF, using clever analogies to challenge “normal” within the non-profit sector. His engaging and refreshing humour left his audience feeling validated, and excited about working in the sector.

We’re so grateful to everyone who presented and attended, and all those who sparked discussions and shared their thoughts And, of course, we thank our sponsors and partners who made the Conference possible:  The Mental Health Commission of CanadaEHN Canada and Academica Group.

We also thank all of our exhibitors:


[1] https://cmha.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/EN_UBC-CMHA-COVID19-Report-FINAL.pdf

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