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May 8 2023 Sheila O'Hearn

Purposeful Support: A Mental Health Awareness Month Conversation

Hands reaching in together to show support.

Just last week, the World Health Organization declared an end to the COVID-19 Pandemic. As we come out of a period of immense stress and exceptional circumstances, mental health is in the spotlight like never before. In light of the global mental health crisis, many CEOs are more open to learning how they might adopt more holistic approaches to mental wellbeing in business.

Three Calgary-based mental health professionals—although interviewed separately—concur that COVID-19 has been the catalyst for promising advances in workplace mental health strategies, policies and funding. With their consulting and program opportunities, these experts echo the demands of campaigns this month, encouraging employers to offer supports and promote positive work environments and psychological safety of workers every day of the year.

“We talk a lot about mental health but not social health.”

– Christie Schulze, HR Director of People & Culture, Distress Centre Calgary

Serving clients from every walk of life, Distress Centre Calgary supports people in crisis. The team of staff and volunteers are experts at matching the right resources and programs to distressed individuals. Their community-of-care approach is especially fitting in a post-COVID world.

Mental Health Awareness Month is important to Christie Schulze for its obvious emphasis on awareness, especially now with the mental health crisis. “But there’s much work to do,” she says. “With the pandemic, those social supports were lost, in large part. We talk a lot about mental health but not social health. As social creatures, we need the people around us. And because we don’t have the language to talk about social health when we came out of isolation, I’m not sure we have the awareness on those things.”

In Schulze’s organization, emphasis on self-care was no longer enough, “so we’ve shifted to a more holistic community-of-care approach to address the mental health crisis,” she says. “Physical health, financial and social wellbeing, a sense of purpose and satisfaction in life—these things impact mental health and they were felt acutely during the pandemic.”

Crisis calls have risen as a result, but it has also sparked change, resulting in her organization uniting with others to extend that holistic community circle of care. Calgary Police Services, Calgary 911 and 211 have begun a call-diversion and co-location initiative. The collaboration works to assist people who are better served by mental health, addiction or social services, rather than a police response.

“Because 911 is such a common number, a lot of people call it in non-emergency circumstances because they don’t know who else to call,” Schulze says. “Co-located with 911, non-emergency calls are now moved over to us at 211, where our trained people can help.”

“COVID shone a bright spotlight on mental health and workplace culture.”

Mairi Serpas, Manager of Social Enterprise, YW Calgary

Mairi Serpas’ extensive background as a senior business development professional and entrepreneur led her, in 2021, to manage the Mindfulicity program at YW Calgary.

Mindfulicity is about building psychologically safe workplaces through foundational e-learning modules. They give practical tools and strategies to build healthy interpersonal relationships, manage conflict and navigate stress and burnout.

“The concept comes out of the work that we’ve done at YW Calgary for years, helping families build healthy relationships,” says Serpas. “The skillset for home and work is exactly the same: listening, empathy and boundary-setting that are vital for a safe environment. Mindfulicity is very applicable in the workplace today and it can be done on any device—anywhere, any time.”

Serpas, like Schulze, also views COVID as a catalyst for change: “A silver lining from all the chaos that was COVID is that it shone a bright spotlight on mental health and workplace culture,” she says.

“In the past, we always shoved the mental health issue under the rug and there was no room for emotions in the workplace, but I think having a more human workplace only makes a company stronger. Companies need to be aware of the effect that bad culture, stress and lack of boundaries has on their employees. A company is people, not just profit, tech or walls. Documented evidence shows that if you have psychological safety in your workplace, you have more productivity, innovation, retention and happiness. The companies that invest in it are going to win in the long run. At YW, it’s part of our core training.”

“Consistency versus intensity,” says Serpas, quoting from celebrated Peace by Chocolate founder Tareq Hadhad. “We need the intensity of Mental Health Awareness Week or Month, but we need the consistency of having that conversation regularly, throughout the year, to evolve the workplace.”

“COVID took mental health to a new level.”

– Mercy Maviko, Founder of Veneka Therapy

Mental health and trauma therapist Mercy Maviko hailed from a small village in Zimbabwe, where the area’s political upheaval made it dangerous for her to pursue her passion for social justice, but she found that outlet when she came to Canada, without reprisal, to work with vulnerable populations. Veneka Therapy and Consulting, which she founded, does exactly that, including work with Indigenous communities in B.C. and Alberta’s rural areas.

Her practice has expanded to business owners and entrepreneurs experiencing trauma, including immigrant business owners. “People are struggling more,” she says. “COVID took mental health to a new level.”

She applauds the growing focus on mental health in the workplace. “It’s important, however, to develop a culture of supported relationships, understanding and connection,” she says. “Social support is a protective factor against many mental health conditions and it’s important for employers to raise that awareness, normalize and validate those with mental health challenges.”

She encourages employers to be proactive and engage employees from day one, in asking the question: “What are the potential mental health hazards of this job and can we develop a plan to mitigate them that we’re constantly reviewing?”

Budget cuts, changes to funding or caseload distribution can come at a human cost, “which ultimately hurts everybody financially,” she says. Maviko notes that Employee Assistance programs’ few allotted sessions are sufficient for some workers but leave out others who need ongoing therapy.

“We have universal access to physical health but not universal access to mental health. Many people can’t afford private services and can’t afford to wait one or two years to get into publicly funded programs. This issue would be helpful to look at. Mental health is part of life. It’s okay to reach out for support but employers need to provide adequate resources.”

To learn more about advocating for positive mental health in the workplace, visit the Canadian Mental Health Association website, or visit:

The Calgary Chamber also offers members a discount to Mindfulicity’s virtual on-demand mindfulness training.