Fort Frances CMHA welcomes new CEO

By Merna Emara
Staff Writer

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) in Fort Frances welcomed Charlene Strain, the new CEO who assumed her new role on July 1.

Strain is not new to the organization. She has been a member of CMHA since 2011 when she was a court diversion and support worker. She then moved on to become an educator and trainer and then a community support team lead. Finally, she was a quality and risk manager prior to sitting at the helm of the organization as CEO.

Strain said CMHA is reflective of her professional and personal values.

“I felt like this organization contributed to making a difference in the lives of individuals, families and communities,” Strain said. “I really appreciated the work and life balance and the culture that we are always striving to improve. We’re here to provide care, but we’re always looking to improve care.”

Growing up in Winnipeg, Man., Strain went to the University of Manitoba and finished her degree in family studies. She then got her honours bachelors of Indigenous social work. She is currently completing her masters degree in health and leadership from Athabasca University.

Having recently celebrated CMHA’s 40th anniversary, the organization has witnessed a sharp change in leadership.

With former CEO Shiela Shaw retiring, followed by Sandy Skirten, director of services, Strain said the organization’s focus is on post-pandemic recovery.

Charlene Strain

“We recognize that COVID-19 has brought mental health to the forefront of current events and societal issues,” Strain said. “Everyone has been impacted to some extent and it is recognized that no one is immune to mental health issues, regardless of race, nationality or culture.”

According to statistics carried out before the pandemic, Strain said, it was estimated that one in five Canadians experienced mental illness in any given year. With the multiple stressors associated with the pandemic, she added that the long periods of isolation, the loss of employment, financial insecurity, all the educational disruptions and mental health issues and addictions are on the rise.

Strain said opioid-related deaths have increased nearly 60 per cent in the first 11 months of 2020.

“Researchers at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health indicate that these mental health and addiction impacts will be widespread and long lasting,” Strain said. “And the mental health and addiction sectors are just beginning to start to feel the impacts of the pandemic.”

With the increased consumption of alcohol and illicit substances, Strain said a new focus at CMHA has been providing a client-centred recovery. Previously, it was just about mental health.

“Right now, it’s mental health and addictions intertwined together,” Strain said. “As an organization, our focus right now is learning and building our capacity to effectively meet the needs of those individuals with these complex conditions that involve mental health and complex substance use.”

Strain said their aim at CMHA is to engage in educational opportunities with their partners and to build quality and evidence-based services that are built on the principles of health equity. Currently, there are seven programs, soon to be eight, with the addition of the Safe Beds Program, which will provide five specific beds that are dedicated to serve persons who are in immediate contact with the police or joint mobile crisis team.

The Safe Beds Program is part of CMHA’s Rainy River District joint mobile crisis team. It provides temporary residential support to individuals who are 16 years of age and older, experiencing a mental health crisis, and they are involved with the police.

“They have to be able to be safely supported in the community, so they have to be deemed medically stable and not a risk of harm to self or others,” Strain said. “The goal of the program is to divert individuals from the justice system, and unnecessary hospital admission by providing stabilization and connection to community support. It’s a 24/7 program, and people can stay for up to 30 days.”

The program has addiction and residential workers, and CMHA has recently hired a team lead. They will also be providing basic living needs, working towards daily living skills, clinical support and counseling because of the referral and linkages to other services.

“ We’re sadly aware that due to the historical and contemporary colonialism in Canada, Indigenous people are over-represented within our criminal justice system,” Strain said. “It’s CMHA’s intention to reach out and collaborate with our Indigenous community partners to ensure that the program is developed and implemented with a bicultural lens to foster reconciliation, healing and wellness.”

Strain said she believes the most challenging part will be recruiting staff who will have the appropriate level of education and training to deal with complex issues. However, Strain said she will strive to always keep the voice of the person with the lived experience at the centre of everything they do.

“Just remember why we are here,” Strain said. “We are here to serve the people and help them identify their goals and what they need to do to be well. It’s all about client-centred recovery care with the client in the middle.”