03/30/2012 07:06 EDT | Updated 05/30/2012 05:12 EDT

Will Canada's Mental Health Improve with Fresh Blood?

Former Senator Michael Kirby, who helped bring mental illness out of the shadows with his Senate report, is turning over the chairmanship of the Mental Health Commission of Canada to his vice-chair, Toronto psychiatrist David Goldbloom, effective April 1. Those of us who have been reluctantly critical of the commission which exists thanks to Kirby's report, hope that Dr. Goldbloom can bring the commission itself out of the shadows.

I say "reluctantly critical" because the vision of the commission that "all people in Canada have the opportunity to achieve the best possible mental health and well-being" and its goals is something that we all agree with. Unfortunately, many of us with a particular interest in the well-being of that small but significant minority of people with serious mental illnesses have found the commission to be lacking.

A number of my blogs for the Huffington Post have been critical of various aspects of the commission's activities. André Picard, theGlobe and Mail health writer suggested, among a list of problems, that the commission and its draft mental health strategy "gives too much credence to social science and not enough to neuroscience." The National Post also pointed out many of the criticisms of the commission from stakeholders in the community such as the Vancouver-based North Shore Schizophrenia Society, and psychiatrist Dr. William Honer, the Jack Bell Chair in Schizophrenia Research at the University of British Columbia. In addition, the Coalition For Appropriate Care and Treatment have concerns, as does Vancouver writer and activist Susan Inman writing in the Tyee.

With a working psychiatrist taking over the commission, we are hopeful that these problems will be left behind. Dr. Goldbloom has been involved for a number of years treating people with serious mental illnesses, including schizophrenia at the Toronto Hospital and at the Centre For Addiction and Mental Health, where he was physician-in-chief. In an interview with the Globe and Mail after his appointment as chair, he stated that he recognizes there has been criticism of the secretiveness involved with the development of a mental health strategy. But he went on to say: "I hope people will be pleased with the results of our extensive consultations. I'm aware of the concerns and criticisms of the draft strategy but it was a draft; there have been extensive revisions throughout the process."

He also said -- and this is what concerns me -- "I'm just the chair."

How much influence does the chair actually have? From my perspective (and others feel the same way), the commission has become a bureaucracy that does not seem to be responsive. I tried to get some information from them for one of my blog posts and no one would respond. I finally told the media relations contact that if I did not get a response from the CEO, then I would quote them as refusing to comment. They responded. But, the CEO did refuse to talk to Joseph Brean of the National Post, which he reported.

Susan Inman has been trying for some time to get them to put in a link to the great wealth of information available on the National Institute for Mental Health website in the U.S., with no luck at the time of this writing. Its website asked people to make suggestions and she did.

Inman has also been suggesting that the Knowledge Exchange Centre of the commission provide information about research and programs on cognitive remediation for people with schizophrenia -- with no success.

This office within the commission is "to help improve the lives of people living with mental illness by creating ways for Canadians to access information, share knowledge, and exchange ideas about mental health." One way it says it will accomplish this is to "incorporate all types of information from different sources."

Well, I tried to find out what information and links it had about schizophrenia and found almost nothing. So, I wrote to the head and have had no reply as yet. The new chair should give some direction to the staff to be more responsive to the public and to provide more information about the nature of mental illness in its Knowledge Exchange Centre. They could, after all, list a couple of his own very good books -- Psychiatry in Primary Care: A Concise Canadian Pocket Guide

and Psychiatric Clinical Skills.

Dr. Goldbloom also stated in his interview that, "The real strength of the commission is [sic] the advisory committees -- that's our intellectual capital." I have no doubt he is correct, but other than the names of the members of each committee, there is no other information about them. It would be nice to have a few sentences describing who each of those individuals are. I did notice the Ottawa academic who thinks untreated schizophrenia can be a gift, and that in other cultures, hearing voices is revered as a bridge to the spirit world, is no longer a committee member. That is an improvement in my opinion but it would be nice to know a little something about the committee members. We do, after all, pay their honoraria.

Many of us are positive about the future of the commission based on Dr. Goldbloom's appointment. We hope for the sake of all the people who need improvements in the system that we will not be disappointed. A lot rests on his shoulders.