Who is making a difference?
Of the Top 150 individuals selected nationwide, four people from this province are among the nation’s best difference makers.
Jack Penashue, Amelia Curran, Patrick Hickey and Seamus O’Regan have been named difference makers for their contribution to positive change in the areas of mental health and addiction.
The Difference Makers campaign is a national movement to nominate and celebrate 150 Canadians making a difference and inspiring hope in the areas of mental health and addictions.
“Transforming mental-health and addictions care in our province is a priority for our government,” Health Minister John Haggie stated in a news release Tuesday.
“The contribution from each of these Difference Makers is influencing how we move forward in that transition. I have the honour of knowing and personally connecting with each of these individuals.”
Haggie said having personally experienced the dedication and passion has been inspiring, and he sent congratulations to Penashue, Curran, Hickey and O’Regan on their recognition and advocacy.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health launched a cross-Canada call in April for nominations that closed on July 1. More than 3,700 names were put forward.
Jack Penashue grew up learning the traditional Innu way of life in his home community of Sheshatshiu. For years he has been a tireless advocate for ensuring this remote community in Labrador has access to programs tailored to the unique mental-health and addiction-service needs of its people. He spent years negotiating with the province to get access to services from an out-of-province treatment centre using a philosophy that resonated with community members. At first succeeding in getting the centre to bring a version of its services to the remote community, eventually he obtained coverage for members to receive residential care at the centre. Most recently, Penashue served as director of social health for Sheshatshiu Innu First Nations. He has also worked for and been a consultant to both the provincial and federal governments. Penashue was involved in setting up a community advisory committee on health, a crisis response team, and a community health board. He has long believed families, communities and governments must work together to focus on the roots of social distress, as well as on treatment solutions. Thanks to Penashue’s efforts, the community now has a continuum of mental health and addictions services and supports the community itself has chosen, which focus on mental wellness, inclusion and belonging.
As a Juno Award-winning singer-songwriter, Amelia Curran uses her platform and experience to help influence mental-health policy. Despite being in the public eye, Curran is open about her personal experience with anxiety and depression. The experience has made her even more empathetic toward friends with similar experiences. When she heard stories of peers waiting years for diagnosis and treatment, Curran decided to gather a committee of like-minded people to advocate for change within the provincial government. After she helped create a celebrity-studded awareness video that went viral, the House of Assembly established an all-party committee to address mental health and addictions. She went on to create the It’s Mental campaign to continue inspiring real change within the mental-health system and co-created the song “Be the Change” with Stella’s Circle’s Inclusion Choir. Most recently, she was appointed to the minister of health and community service’s recovery council. Her drive and passion for mental-health awareness speaks to her character as a musician and as a person with lived experience.
As a child, Patrick Hickey witnessed one of his family member’s experiences with mental illness. He decided he wanted to do something about mental health. Without telling any of his family members, he approached his school guidance counsellor about doing something to promote mental wellness at school. On that day, an advocate was born. Now just 19 years old, Hickey’s accomplishments as an advocate are already too many to list. He created and chaired the Metro Youth Mental Health Committee, received an award from the Red Cross, organized a school mental-health event that led to a provincial event with more than 600 participants and is a member of three councils committed to mental health. Perhaps most impressively, he lobbied successfully for the establishment of an all-party committee on mental health and addictions. In 2017 the committee released “Toward Recovery: A Vision for a Renewed Mental Health and Addictions System for Newfoundland and Labrador.” Today, a university student who in addition to his many roles in the mental-health sector worked last year as a residence adviser, it is clear that Hickey’s commitment to making a difference for mental health is something he brings with him to every environment he finds himself in — an encouraging note given this young advocate shows no signs of slowing his impact any time soon.
Seamus O’Regan is the minister of veterans affairs and former host of CTV’s “Canada AM.” His candidness about mental illness makes it easier for others to open up. It is never easy living with addiction, but imagine adding the weight of having all of Canada know about your struggle. In 2016, as a newly elected member of Parliament, O’Regan tweeted that he had entered a wellness program in an effort to live an alcohol-free lifestyle. Openness about mental illness was not new to him, having been candid about receiving treatment for depression in the past. In fact, he had served as a spokesman for the annual Bell Let’s Talk campaign while working as a broadcaster. Although the stakes must have felt even higher as an MP, the impact of him speaking so openly about his decision to seek treatment given his position was also that much greater. A year and a half after starting his recovery journey, he was recently appointed the minister of veterans affairs and associate minister of national defence — portfolios that include a significant mental-health component, given the stressors on mental health among military service members and veterans. By modelling openness first as a broadcaster, then as an MP and now as a cabinet minister, O’Regan shows Canadians it’s OK to open up about their experience with mental illness regardless of one’s position.