The Douglas Foundation: an interview with Laura Fish
“Mental illness doesn’t discriminate,” states Laura Fish, Executive Director of The Douglas Foundation, an organization that funds patient care and research at the Douglas Institute in Montreal. Even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, one third of Canadians experienced mental illness at some point in their lives, accounting for over 30% of short- and long-term disability claims.
What impact does a donation to the Douglas Foundation have?
Money is the motor that drives research towards identifying the causes of mental illness and developing more effective treatments. The Douglas Research Centre is the largest in Quebec and the second largest in Canada. Our hospital has over 260 beds and sees more than 15,000 patients every year. Despite the impressive numbers, we are grossly under-financed; the Foundation raises approximately $2 million annually—relatively little compared to what other healthcare institutions bring in. Every dollar donated ultimately helps us improve patient care.
Name something critical the Douglas Institute has been able to achieve in the last few years thanks to funds amassed by the Foundation.
I am especially proud that we were able to pivot and look after our front-line teams during the pandemic. Our role suddenly changed, and we were asked to take on a unique responsibility. The fact that we were able to care for not only our patients, but also our doctors, nurses and support staff while continuing to advance research is a testament to the generosity of our donors, who allowed us to navigate a truly challenging situation.
What impact has the Covid-19 pandemic had on the Foundation’s operations?
The Douglas was hit hard in the beginning. There was a time where we were the only ones in the Greater Montreal Area receiving mental health patients who tested positive for Covid-19. We had to reorient resources on the care side and become leaders. Staff was re-deployed to meet the needs of Covid-positive patients, and a dedicated unit was established for them. On the fundraising side, live events including our annual cocktail were cancelled. We had to find alternative ways to increase our visibility and keep people’s attention. It’s been a struggle.
Why is mental health so heavily stigmatized?
My best guess is that we don’t know enough about it; we are not entirely comfortable naming it. Because we can’t see mental illness the same way we can see physical disease, there is the misconception that it is not a real illness. We speak broadly and vaguely about the importance of mental health, often without acknowledging that a person suffering from poor mental health is sick. As long as we continue to be an underfunded area of healthcare, we will continue to be limited in our understanding of how the brain works, and how we can help it function better.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic shifted the way we perceive and discuss mental health?
We will not have a full answer to this for many years. It seems that more people are experiencing anxiety and depression as a result of the last two years, and that people feel more comfortable opening up about their struggles and having conversations around mental health.
How can individuals better support loved ones living with mental health issues?
There are many things individuals can do to move the needle: name it, talk about it and contribute financially to research so that we can better care for your loved ones. Learn more about mental illness and participate in awareness campaigns. Donate, because our needs are endless: we want to be able to bring in the best and the brightest in the field so that our laboratory and clinical research studies can develop and thrive. We also need better physical spaces, better waiting rooms, access to tablets and WiFi; basic things that improve the patient experience. Every bit counts.
Text: Jennifer Laoun-Rubenstein