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Back to old roots with a new facility

May 1, 2010
by Lindsay Barba, Associate Editor
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CAMH's new CEO has a two-fold vision for the cutting-edge research and treatment facility

Catherine zahn, phdCatherine Zahn, PhD, is not your average behavioral health professional. Trained as a neurologist at the University of Toronto, she specializes in epilepsy and has a long track record in leading large, multi-faceted healthcare facilities on both the clinical and management sides.

But this, Zahn feels, is exactly what makes her the perfect candidate for her new role as CEO of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto. As Canada's largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital, CAMH is a leader in behavioral health research and education, as well as a renowned treatment center that is currently undergoing a multi-phase redevelopment of its 27-acre Queen Street site to create “a new kind of hospital.”

Zahn's experience as a neuroscience researcher, professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto, and hospital-network administrator who has successfully led staff through a large redevelopment project more than qualified her for the role, which she accepted in December 2009. Having spent the last few years of her career as the executive vice president of clinical programs and practice at the University Hospital Network, Zahn is excited to again serve a familiar patient population of which she is particularly passionate about at CAMH.

“My own patient population is very much an overlap; many of my patients actually have development abnormalities or mental illness, be it depression, addictions, alcohol issues, or eating disorders,” Zahn says. “To me, coming to a mental illness facility is actually bringing me back to my roots because I went away from it a little bit when I was leading a multi-faceted health science center.”

Using science to break down stigma

Zahn's expertise in the relationship between physical diseases and brain science will allow CAMH to continue to be at the forefront of developing new ways to approach and understand treatment for behavioral health patients.

“At this moment in time, there's a great deal of appreciation of brain activity, function, and dysfunction in combination with environmental factors that lead to mental illness,” she says. “So it's very important to understand that some of the techniques we use to understand physical brain diseases are also referable to understanding what the abnormalities or changes are in brain activity that leads to mental illness.”

Expanding the facility's research endeavors is something that Zahn hopes will be part of the legacy she leaves behind at CAMH. “I think there's so much that we don't know about the causes and the modifiers of mental illness and addiction,” she says. “It's critical that we are able to raise the awareness of the need for enhanced research, and one of the important aspects of my vision is to expand our research enterprise.”

However, she plans to use CAMH's evolving research not just for treatment purposes, but also to achieve another part of her vision: to break down the negative stigma that surrounds her current patient population.

“The idea of bringing brain science to patient care to break down perceptions of people with mental illness is big to me,” Zahn says. “I think our organization has a big enough voice that we can speak out on behalf of our patients, and speak with the language of inclusivity, to breed familiarity for people who have a misunderstanding of what it's like to have a mental illness.”

Designing societal change on Queen Street

CAMH's redevelopment project is a special one in that it aims to integrate the community into its treatment by building the facility up and around the existing neighborhood.

“We have a big piece of land that just happens to be in a very up-and-coming area that's a very lively, socially conscious area of the neighborhood,” Zahn says. “It gives us an opportunity when we're doing our redevelopment to reflect on the community and our organization and bring our best to each other. So rather than being passive neighbors, we have tried to enter into an active and viable partnership with our neighborhood.”

To forge this partnership between the treatment facility and its surrounding community, CAMH has literally broken down the wall of the facility-which was once a state mental hospital-that separated it from the rest of the community. “Now the front of the campus opens out onto this street,” Zahn says, “and as part of the redevelopment, we'll have more streets put in so that it's a continuation of the city streets through the campus.”

Along with new streets and sidewalks, the campus will also include parks, a client-run sidewalk café, and a non-CAMH building that will house retail and residential spaces. Through the culmination of these elements, CAMH hopes to create an “urban village” within the community that integrates its clientele with their Toronto neighbors.

“It's a physical destination in and of itself, and it's also a destination for people from around the world that have a mental illness and for people who want to do research in brain science,” Zahn says. “One of my favorite things is actually being on the construction site and understanding that that's just the start, just like research and education foundations are the cornerstone and basis upon which we can grow and develop.”

Behavioral Healthcare 2010 May;30(5):48

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