redesigning mental health

[from left to right] Laureen MacNeil, CMHA Calgary's executive director and Amy Ball, communications lead with CMHA Calgary of are dedicated to normalizing the experience behind seeking help for mental health. Photo by Alec Warkentin.

A half-block from West Kerby station, the last stop before the CTrain leaves Calgary’s downtown core and heads west into the suburbs, the Canadian Mental Health Associations’ (CMHA) Calgary branch and recovery college sits atop a short walk up a few concrete stairs, doors open to the public.

Just inside, the floor-to-ceiling glass entry gives way to a colourful welcome centre, complete with plush chairs and handmade artwork adorning the walls.


It looks not unlike an Apple store, picture windows and all, though rather than blue-shirted “geniuses,” visitors are met by cheerful, young peer-support workers ready to engage those with mental health issues who come in seeking solace.


“Most of the people that walk in have had some connection with the formal system, and our job is really to be that space in-between and really encourage people to understand that there are lots of individuals that are out there in the community that have had a recovery journey,” says Laureen MacNeil, CMHA Calgary’s executive director, who has been with the organization for the past six years.


“It’s this whole idea to normalize the experience … no referral, no appointment needed.”


An open door to talking about mental health


The purpose for this re-design is multifaceted: Its “open-door” model is meant to help make the process of seeking help for mental health more accessible and open, while also attracting youth, namely those between the ages of 16 and 24, who may be dealing with mental illness to be comfortable exploring the services that CMHA Calgary offers through its “recovery college” -— one floor up from the welcome centre — where “students” can sign up for classes geared towards topics such as self-care, coping mechanisms, body image, harm reduction and proper sleep skills.

“We have been listening to young people in schools for 20 years and so you can imagine, they are our customers,” says MacNeil. “We really believe in co-design, so if you start to do things the way people want you to do, I think you get the up-take.

Youth — they’re telling us that stigma is not as much of a problem, but they’re saying they want skills and tools to implement into the community.”


While MacNeil says stigma is on a downturn when it comes to youth perspectives on mental health, with many who seek services sharing experiences through word of mouth to friends, the objective of de-stigmatization is still not fully realized.

From the sidewalk of Seventh Avenue, however, spanning windows give pedestrians a clear view into the welcome centre of the office, a conscious decision in the design of the location according to Amy Ball, communications lead with CMHA Calgary.


“When you look in the windows, you can’t tell who’s the client and who’s the staff because everyone is at the same level in terms of where they’re sitting, how they’re sitting and what they’re learning,” says Ball.

The similarities between any shop at the mall and CMHA’s storefront are no accident. MacNeil says she’s always thinking about the consumer experience due to her background in industrial engineering.

“We intentionally sat in my office in our old location, which wasn’t a storefront, and we just thought about, ‘Why do we treat mental health differently than going to the Apple store?’” MacNeil explains. “So, we actually started to think about the Apple store and how people actually seek services. So, take the Apple concept and say ‘What would mental health services look like if you could just walk in?’”

CMHA Calgary's welcome centre is designed to be as warm and welcoming as any storefront you'd see in a shopping mall. Photo by Alec Warkentin.

Mental health: A storied history


The development to the storefront appearance of CMHA today is a far cry from the approach towards mental illness in the past.

MacNeil says 30 years ago, the CMHA operated quietly, often with very little support available from community members. The evolution of the association, that has now doubled its staff in the past six years, according to MacNeil, comes in part thanks to a deeper understanding of what mental illness is.

CMHA Calgary's walls are adorned with handmade artwork created by staff and clients to create a personal tone throughout the building. Photo by Alec Warkentin.

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"We have moved away from thinking that mental illness and substance use are moral failing, we’re actually saying this can happen to any of us, so how we can think about it like diabetes or any other thing we may be exposed to in life,” says MacNeil.


This movement towards an information-based approach is instrumental in the work CMHA carries out today, with empowering rhetoric guiding the open-door policy the association operates upon.


“We know recovery is possible, we know turning illness into wellness can happen much quicker if you have the knowledge, skills and tools. It can even help you talk to someone who has the same experiences you might have,” says MacNeil.


“It’s all about giving hope and quickly turning your mindset into something of where you might have almost felt victimized by a certain diagnosis, to, ‘You can do a lot.’”

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