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Scott’s story: From a desperate call to a full-time job with CMHA Ottawa

For Bell Let’s Talk, we’re looking at the inspiring story of a former client who is now a crucial part of the team

Scott William lost his 20s to agoraphobia. He was desperate when he called the Ottawa branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA Ottawa) one day in late 2018. He had spent the past decade in his hoarded apartment and had recently been presented with an ultimatum.

Scott was told he would be cut off from government assistance if he did not seek mental health support. Scott had experienced homelessness as a youth, so he knew what would happen next if he didn’t advocate for himself: he would lose his housing.

Scott found himself on the phone with Cynthia Schreiber, who handles intake at CMHA Ottawa. Scott was not the type of person to open up to a stranger, but when Cynthia told him he did not qualify for immediate case management and the wait across agencies in the city for Mental Health Community Support Services (MHCSS) would be approximately three years, it broke him.

But CMHA Ottawa does all it can, even within an under-resourced system to support people in need, so Cynthia and Scott explored options together.

“She stayed on the phone with me for about two-and-a-half hours,” Scott says. “She was like, ‘Can you please hold? I don’t want you to go anywhere. Let me find you some resources.’ This was the first adult that had helped me since I was a teenager. This was the first person that cared.”

Cynthia did everything she could to get Scott quickly into some kind of service, starting by linking him to primary care. (Scott still had the red-and-white OHIP card – that’s how long it had been since he’d seen a doctor.)

However, his situation worsened, and he found himself visiting the hospital emergency room due to panic attacks on more than one occasion. After discharge one day he was offered system navigation services through CMHA Ottawa’s Familiar Faces program. His worker, Despina Pelekos, helped him meet his immediate needs like getting him registered for disability payments and arranging emergency dental surgery. After three months, he moved to Transitional Case Management (TCM) within CMHA Ottawa,  during which he would identify his strengths and take steps to turn his life around. 

That’s when Scott learned of an opportunity to play to one of his greatest strengths, and things really started to take a turn.

A decade previous, as a college student, Scott studied cyber security. Then, as a young man experiencing years of agoraphobia, he taught himself a lot about computer programming and information technology. 

Just before the Covid-19 pandemic, Scott’s TCM worker, Kealey Dunlop, told him about CMHA Ottawa’s Peer Engagement Advisory Council (PEAC) and encouraged him to get involved. He joined, offering the group IT support, and eventually, offering CMHA Ottawa advice on its IT operations.

Scott remembers the first day he arrived – in person; he was shy and quiet, hiding behind a big beard and long hair. He was reluctant at first but was quickly embraced.

“I thought honestly that my opinion or my voice didn’t matter until I joined PEAC,” says Scott. “And at PEAC, I was kind of scouted out for my opinions and then they saw that I was good at tech. I became, unofficially, somebody who could advise people on it.”

When the pandemic hit and everything shut down, in a strange way, it assisted Scott in his recovery from agoraphobia.

“It actually made my recovery journey easier,” he says, “because there weren’t so many people around, I could actually go to a grocery store because there weren’t 400 people there – I could go out on walks.”

Scott was getting his confidence back and was positioned to take bigger steps.

Amid the lockdowns, CMHA Ottawa workers needed to be able to connect with their clients, many of whom were in the shelter system or experiencing chronic homelessness. The agency began to distribute smartphones to its clients. Scott stepped up to help.

Led by program manager Melissa Bridle, the program was called Project Connection. It expanded quickly and Scott was hired as part of the team.

With his technical know-how and a natural charisma that was returning to him, Scott was instrumental in setting up the phones and distributing them to agency clients and helping them use the devices.

“I can tell you the best moment of me working here,” says Scott. “I gave a phone to a client, and they cried and said, ‘Now I can call my daughter.’

“It was a job, and it was a steady pay cheque, but the emotional currency – the thing that I’ve always said about working in nonprofit or working here specifically has been like, it’s never been about the physical currency; it’s always been about the emotional currency I get at the end of the day. I go home and I don’t hate myself. I go home and I think ‘I did good today.’”

And so, in an interesting twist of irony, while most of society was sheltering in place, since CMHA Ottawa is an essential service, Scott was now regularly out of the house, working part-time, providing invaluable peer support and IT assistance.

Through a sense of purpose and meaningful service to individuals experiencing mental health and substance use concerns, Scott spent more and more time out of the house.

“I would sit in our clinic space and do tech support for our clients,” Scott says. “I gained some friends. I didn’t have a lot of friends [at the time].”

As time went on and the pandemic went through its different stages, the IT needs continued to grow for CMHA Ottawa’s frontline staff and their clients. Consequently, Scott’s responsibilities grew, and the agency’s management and finance department continued to find funding to ensure Scott could continue to offer IT peer support.

Scott’s mental health improved, too. In the early days on the job, Scott was still in fight-or-flight mode much of the time, but he persisted.

For some people, there’s a moment of epiphany when embracing mental health recovery. For Scott, it was when he saw the correlation between cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and computer programming.

“CBT wasn’t my thing,” he says. “I was a mathematician. Math is my thing. I understand numbers and algorithms and coding … I was presented with CBT, and it rubbed me the wrong way because I didn’t understand that language.

“Until I realized: it’s like computer programming. If you are triggered by ‘X’, then what are you going to do about it? and I’m like, ‘That makes sense. Controlling cognitive distortions is an ‘if/then’ plan. If this happens, then I’m going to do ‘X’… Once I understood it in my terms, I just decided to try.’”

By working closely with clients of CMHA Ottawa and making new friends with similar experiences, Scott discovered one of his hidden talents: peer support. He began to volunteer with the local non-profit Psychiatric Survivors of Ottawa (PSO), a community of peers that uses their lived experience with the mental health system to support one another in moving towards their full potential. At PSO, Scott trained under Tom Kelly to become a peer support specialist.

“I felt like not only could I give back to CMHA, but I could give back to Ottawa,” says Scott. “I could give back to the people of Ottawa by just listening. Not being there to fix or judge, but to be somebody to walk alongside on the path and say, ‘Hey, you’re not alone.’”

Once involved in peer support, Scott turned his focus on training. Notably, he gravitated to the Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP), an eight-week peer-facilitated self-help recovery education series. He also got involved in the local 2SLGBTQIA+ community, offering WRAP courses to Max Ottawa, a provider of health and wellness services and programs for guys into guys. (Scott identifies as bisexual.)

Next was Scott’s involvement with CMHA Ottawa’s Pride festivities. In August 2022, Scott marched with the agency in the Capital Pride parade, completing a symbolic 180-degree turn: from years of dark isolation to being part of a large community in a bright, public setting.

It was challenging, but ultimately rewarding.

“I straight up had a panic attack,” he says. “It’s true. But I had the support of my friends, and friends that I made through PSO, through CMHA. I remember [CMHA worker] Sam Kabbara was dancing. I remember Helen [Gottfried-Unruh, Director of Clinical Services] marching with us, which was great, and I just got lost in the festivities of it all. I started handing out stickers to everybody, and I was the most popular person for 10 minutes. I was just like, ‘Here you go. Here’s a frisbee.’”

The following year, he arranged a shared booth at Pride for CMHA Ottawa and PSO and volunteered the whole weekend alongside CMHA worker Jake, to engage with the community and talk with people about the life-affirming power of peer support.

“I got to help so many people from every corner of the city; from every part of the rainbow,” he says. “To people just discovering themselves. I got to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got mental health resources.’”

By now, Scott was working full-time alongside CMHA Ottawa’s manager of IT, Cory Fryer – the most in-demand and accommodating IT professional in the business – making easier the lives of the agency’s dedicated frontline staff by helping them with their ever-changing technological needs.

“Working with Scott has been a pleasure so far,” says Cory. “Every day since starting off with Project Connection, Scott has grown his IT skillset to help support the variety of technologies used by staff. Scott is wonderful when working with staff on their IT issues and no matter the challenge, he always takes it head-on to be able to provide the staff with the support they need.”

In his new, permanent, full-time, unionized role as Desktop Technician, Scott found himself in another full-circle moment: he had gone from being on a desperate phone call to a CMHA Ottawa worker named Cynthia in 2018, to helping Cynthia and every other worker in the agency with their tech needs – including their phones.

“Scott is a valued member of the CMHA Ottawa team,” says Dr. Susan Farrell, CEO. “His transformation from a person limited by agoraphobia to the colleague who walks the halls (with a warm smile) focused on finding ways to support the IT needs of his colleagues is inspiring.

“Six months ago, when I started at CMHA Ottawa, Scott began daily ‘check-in’ discussions with me about everything from my printer cables to how to improve the mental health system to better serve everyone. After my fourth day on the job, Scott left me a sticky note that said ‘thank you for all of your support’ – a note that I will always keep posted in my office. In reality, I should have sent the thank you note to Scott – the wisdom he shares as a peer is important to our organization and our community.”

On any given day at the CMHA Ottawa offices, where workers populate desks throughout its open spaces, you’ll find Scott doing the rounds, solving IT problems with pleasure, an important part of the organization that helped him find his calling.

The theme for Bell Let’s Talk 2024 is ‘Let’s create real change’, so at CMHA Ottawa we’re focusing on the profound effect of peer programming on creating positive change in the lives of the people we serve, and the way peer support is changing mental health and substance use health care for the better.

CMHA Ottawa is proud to have peers (persons who identify as having lived experience of mental illness) in all parts of our organization. Peers enhance our thinking, our services and the compassion and collegiality of our organization.

In the 2022-2023, 104 clients of CMHA Ottawa received support from the Peer Team, benefiting from the unique kind of wisdom and understanding that can only be provided by a person with lived experience or expertise.

A peer-led program, Recovery College provides an innovative learning space where clients can access free courses, webinars, workshops, and events to learn, gain new skills, and connect with others in their community.

In 2022-2023, Recovery College at CMHA Ottawa offered more than 40 learning opportunities to students on topics such as Challenging Isolation and Loneliness, Connecting with Nature, Coping with Triggers, Developing Self-Compassion and a new series, Empowered in Your Home

The Peer Engagement Advisory Council (PEAC) is a group of clients, family/loved ones and CMHA Ottawa staff and Board members who meet regularly to advise and support CMHA Ottawa to be the best that it can be.

PEAC provides a forum for clients and families to voice their opinions regarding services and to participate in opportunities to improve the quality, safety and outcomes of CMHA Ottawa services. It encourages client engagement and person-centered care in all aspects of the agency: at the service-delivery level, the policy level, and the mental-health-care-system level.

To donate funds to CMHA Ottawa’s peer team, Recovery College or PEAC, please visit our page on CanadaHelps.

The Canadian Mental Health Association, Ottawa Branch (CMHA Ottawa), is an independent, community-based non-profit organization that provides services for eligible individuals in the Ottawa area with severe and persistent mental illness and/or substance use disorder, many of whom are experiencing chronic homelessness or are vulnerably housed. CMHA Ottawa is dedicated to promoting good mental health, developing and implementing sustainable support systems and services, and encouraging public action to strengthen community mental health services and related policies and legislation.

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