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Canadian Mental Health Association With Michael Anhorn

By July 7th, 2023No Comments26 min read
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Around 20% of society has a mental illness, whereas everyone has mental health. Just like your physical health, this is something you need to take care of. Join Douglas Nelson as he talks to Michael Anhorn about how he runs his organization as a leader. Michael is the CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association. Michael believes in creating an inclusive society where no one is left behind. Listen in to understand how he takes on the responsibilities of a new business leader. Learn how the not-for-profit sector operates. And know the difference between mental health and mental illness. Start taking care of your health today!

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Canadian Mental Health Association With Michael Anhorn

Our guest on the show is Michael Anhorn. He’s the CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Toronto branch, and we are pleased to see him on the show. Welcome, Michael.

Thanks, Doug. It’s great to be here.

For our readers who may or may not have a working knowledge of the Canadian Mental Health Association, you were here in Vancouver. You have moved over the course of the pandemic to lead the Toronto branch. Tell us a little bit about the work of the Canadian Mental Health Association there in Toronto and across the country.

The Canadian Mental Health Association is set up as a federation. Every CMHA branch meets the needs of its local community. We don’t necessarily have a lot of services that are in common but we do have a common approach to supporting people’s independence and recovery and where the differences come in. Some of our branches focus a lot on mental health promotion and prevention of mental illness and addictions, and other branches spend a large amount of time and are focused on responding to people living with severe mental illness and in recovery from severe mental illness.

In CMHA Toronto, we are focused much of our time working with people with severe mental illness. We provide clinical services such as community treatment teams, which are interdisciplinary teams spent to support clients in the community to recover from severe mental illness and restabilize and reintegrate into society.

We also do Early Psychosis Intervention Programs, so young people between the ages of 16 and 26 would have their first psychotic episode. We get in and support as early as possible. We do intensive case management for people recovering from severe mental illness, and we also do social, recreational programming that provides structured daytime activity for people with severe mental illness. Over the course of the pandemic, we have increased the work that we do on mental health promotion, and we are continuing that. We are about to launch a new strategic plan where we will be increasing our focus on promoting positive mental health and the habits and skills that are required to maintain that.

The distinction you are making there is one we have heard a lot about his mental health has been getting quite a bit of attention over the course of the pandemic is that distinction between mental illness and mental health. How do you approach that as a leader at CMHA?

I think about it as all of us have mental health. Similar to our physical health and we spend a lot of time teaching people how to exercise and eat right. How to not maintain and improve our physical health. Healthy living is very similar. There are things we can do to make sure that we are more mentally healthy. There are exercises we can do that help improve our mental health, our wellness.

There are things that can eat away our mental health over time and potentially lead to mental illness. For me, mental illness is a sickness. It needs treatment. That treatment can be clinical. It can also be socially recreational, and usually, both need to go hand in hand with mental illness. We know about 20% of our society experience mental illness, whereas 100% of us have mental health.

It’s a helpful and important distinction to make. Have you noticed, over the course of the pandemic, people who know what you do or your job on a daily basis talking to you more about their own mental health?

Absolutely. Prior to the pandemic, people would be uncomfortable often when they heard that I worked in mental health. They feel that they do the dance of like, “I want to tell you but I don’t want to tell you.” What I found is people going, “I have been struggling with my mental health. My stress has been higher. My patience has been lower. Those conversations have come much more freely, and that’s a good thing. We need to be able to talk about how we are doing because not a whole of our mental health needs to be clinical or met with clinical interventions. Sometimes a listening ear and a friend are what we need.

Also, a bonspiel on the weekend, a walk in the woods on a weekend or something that social connection is so important. I want to pivot our conversation to talk a little bit about your journey as a leader. You entered the sector as an advocate and then as someone with a very strong reputation for building collaborative partnerships in the sector. How old were you when you realized you wanted to be the CEO of CMHA Toronto?

Honestly, at 45.

About 20% of society experience mental illness, whereas 100% of society has mental health. Click To Tweet

How did you get into the sector?

My career in the nonprofit sector started when I was young. I started working for nonprofits when I was sixteen on a part-time basis. What I found in the nonprofit sector was purpose and alignment with my values. I was raised in a very progressive home where social justice issues were discussed, if not daily, almost daily.

Our family was involved with the disability community, where I saw the impact of exclusion from society. I don’t know that it was ever a conscious decision but somewhere along there, I realized the work that I was going to do. I wanted it to be about improving people’s lives and helping people to make room for themselves in a society where otherwise they would potentially be excluded.

For me, the nonprofit sector was the place to do that. In some ways, I’ve got lucky. I’ve got hired to jobs that let me grow my leadership skills and do that work. I took a break from the nonprofit sector and worked for the government for about six and a half years. That let me develop my leadership skills to a level where I felt I could be in senior leadership in the nonprofit sector. I could have done that in the nonprofit sector but it was much quicker in government.

How did your view on the sector change when you went from that champion advocate role that you were playing in the sector to government, which was more the funding evaluation style of work?

For me, it reinforced the importance of the sector. The sector does work in ways that government would struggle to do, and the private sector would never be able to do because of the proper mission of the private sector. It also helped undo some myths I had about the public sector. My view of the public sector prior to joining it was that they are super organized. They are planning ten years out, and everything is thought through and planned.

One of the things I realized is they are often as reactionary as we are in the not-for-profit sector. The difference is they have more zeros in their budgets, so they can make bigger things happen faster but they are also struggling to come up with the ideas to solve these big and enduring problems in our society, similar to how the non-profit sector is.

One of the things I learned is that the nonprofit sector could have a lot more influence and a lot more success if we knew how to communicate to the government that we know some of the solutions to this and that we need their partnership to implement those solutions. Prior to that, I never understood that the nonprofit sector could contribute to government and solutions. I thought we were always reacting.

Michael, what gets in the way of that expertise or that perspective towards a solution from being more talked about in the exchange between government or across the sector? In my experience in the work we get to do here with The Discovery Group, my colleagues and I see organizations that have clear answers. They can formulate a great hypothesis. They have got planned intervention and often are stuck at the gates waiting to be able to implement it. What can organizations do or how do successful organizations get to articulate those solutions and get them into action?

One of the things that challenge a lot of organizations is we are so thin in our administration and our support to our programs that we are dealing with operational issues day in and day out. It’s hard to have the time to communicate effectively with senior officials in government. Some of us have that luxury, and others struggled to carve out the time to do that.

It takes preparation time, communication skills, and relationships to get into the right place. All of which is time. When you have to choose between a crisis or emergency within your organization or doing that advocacy work outside with government, most often, the crisis inside is going to have to take priority to keep the doors open and the lights on. That’s one of the challenges. Maybe this is me but others in the sector don’t necessarily know the value of what the solutions are that we have. They are obvious to us, so we think they are obvious to others. We don’t always realize that we need to say them to the government.

What’s an example that comes to mind when you say that?

Some of the work that has been done around social financing, especially in housing. That was work those nonprofits and co-ops have been working on for years, and I don’t know that we communicated that effectively to the government. There had been attempts, and some of it was we assumed they would know what we were talking about, and I don’t know that they did. That’s one example.

In government, you are at BC Housing for six and a half years, and then you go back to the sector. Where are you looking for the chance to get back in the sector or did the chance find you?

I was looking. I had spent six and a half years in government. When I was hired, I told my boss that I would be in government for three years, and then I would be back in the nonprofit sector.

Was she the best boss you ever had?

She was one of the best bosses I have ever had. Margaret McNeil at BC Housing was incredible to work with. She mentored me into being in senior leadership. She had a lot of experience in the public sector, so she helped me navigate the difference between being in the public sector and in the not-for-profit sector. After six and a half years, it was time to leave.

I felt like I had learned a great deal of what I could learn, and I was missing having the more immediate mission-driven impact. I started applying for positions in the not-for-profit sector. I applied to the Canadian Mental Health Association Vancouver-Burnaby branch at the time for their Executive Director position, not thinking they would take my application overly seriously because I was coming out of the response to homelessness and the housing sector.

The board there saw some transferable skills, and as they pointed out to me later, you can’t work in homelessness and not become familiar with mental health. It’s because there are so many people that are homeless who also have a mental illness. It was not as steep of a learning curve as I thought it would be. The board was quite forward-thinking in terms of transferable skills, wanting someone with leadership and organizational development experience knowing that they already had an organization full of subject matter experts and mental health clinicians.

Who was more close to accurate? Was it you thinking it was a steep learning curve or was the board thinking it was not that steep?

The board was more accurate on that one. There was learning. The acronyms in every sector are different. Some of the concepts I had to learn. One of the things that showed me was that senior leadership is leadership, and the subject we need to learn is that we don’t necessarily need to be experts in it because there are other people who are the experts in program design and development.

You mentioned at the outset that the Canadian Mental Health Association responds to local needs. There’s not a rote formula that the association plays in different communities. You made the transition from Vancouver to Toronto. I’m curious what leadership skills you felt were important to take with you from your time in Vancouver to the role you were taking in Toronto.

In terms of leadership skills, the systems-level advocacy I was learning about in Vancouver. I knew that would be very important to hear here in Ontario and Toronto, specifically. Ontario is going through a healthcare system transformation. I would say I’ve got my feet wet in that in Vancouver and in advocating for mental health to be seen as part of the healthcare system.

In Ontario, mental health is clearly part of the healthcare system, and the entire healthcare system is in the process of transformation. Being able to build those relationships have a clear vision for where mental health fits in the healthcare system and that it is part of healthcare has been important. I would say I have learned a lot since I’ve got here about how to do that.

You don't need to be an expert in everything because there are already other people who are experts in it. Click To Tweet

The healthcare systems in the two provinces are very different, and they implement them very differently. I had to learn a whole new system here in Toronto. Having made the transition from being in the response to homelessness and housing sector into mental health taught me how to learn about a sector. I also brought that skill of learning to Toronto. I think I did. That’s part of it.

The change or transition management skills that I was able to develop and hone in CMHA in Vancouver have been important. The pandemic has brought us almost nothing but constant change. We all know the same. The one thing that’s constant is change but the pandemic brought that to a whole new level. Now that we are starting hopefully to emerge from the pandemic, we are constantly having to do the planning for transition and supporting staff through those changes and transitions. Those have been some of the important skills that I brought with me.

I’m interested in another skillset or how you prepared yourself with this. Many of the readers of our show are relatively new CEOs or people who want to be CEOs that may be in the position of following a long-serving CEO. I know that was certainly the case for you coming into an organization that had been built in the image of its leader for many years and now looking for a change. How did you approach that leadership change and that leadership challenge of being different than the person that had been there for so long?

There are two main things that I very intentionally did when I’ve first got here. The first was to acknowledge that Steve had been here and had been beloved for many years. In my 1st or 2nd all-staff meeting, I addressed that directly. Some people have asked me how I will step into his shoes and I said, “I’m not willing to. We need to honor Steve and his contribution. It’s very similar to how hockey teams retire a person’s jersey and raise it through the rafters. We are going to retire his shoes, and we are going to always honor his contribution to CMHA but I’m not Steve and I’m not going to pretend to be or try to be. We are going to get to know each other as the new people we are.”

That was one piece that I thought was important, and it was a message that I repeated on different occasions. The other thing that I did in the first three months that I worked here was I did a virtual listening to her. I met individually with each one of our teams at CMHA Toronto. We have 50 teams. I took the first three months to do almost nothing but this listening to her so that I could hear from staff. What are the things they loved about CMHA Toronto and wanted to preserve?

What were the crunchy bits of the organization, and every organization has it? What’s the thing like, “This was not there. I could do my job so much better,” and then what are the things that we’ve got some mixed messages about? We have got about 420 staff, and you are not going to get total agreement across a staff team of that big. That’s that large. I took what I heard. I tried to synthesize it down into a report that I gave to the board and gave back to staff to say, “This is what I have heard. Tell me where I’ve got it right. Tell me where I have got it wrong, and then let’s work to address some of the crunchy bits of the organization.”

What did it feel like if your finger was hovering over the sin button on that? I would imagine there were a few sacred cows involved in there. There are probably a few bits of crunchy bits that would be particularly sensitive for some of the people reading it. Were there clear, obvious conclusions that were there?

I felt there were clear obvious conclusions, and some of them I was not sure how they would land. One of the clear conclusions, and in my mind anyways, was that our core services or shared services had not kept up with the growth of the organization and were at pretty significant risk. Our programs, I thought, were amazing.

Everything I heard about the outcomes that we achieved, the way we support clients, the way we meet them where they are at and meet them in the community, and the innovation that we do in our programming was all amazing. I heard time and time again that our organizational infrastructure was either struggling to keep up or was not keeping up. It was not supporting our staff in the way that they were wanting to be supported.

CMHA Toronto has long been an organization focused on service delivery. I was a bit worried about how that assessment would land because I did not mean it as a slight on the administrative teams. They are doing the best job they can in very difficult situations, and they need some showing up. That’s how I hoped that message would land but I was not sure.

It partly landed very well. Some people were like, “Does this mean we are spending more and more money on administration rather than on clients?” We are still working through that, to be very honest and frank. My message through it is, “I want our shared services to be the right supports to hold up these amazing programs that we have.” Many years ago, I was introduced to the notion of a tape thinking about an organization as a tabletop, and Susan Kenny Stevens included this analogy in one of her books.

At CMHA Toronto, I felt the programs that are the tabletop and support the mission in the community are amazing. The legs holding up our tabletop are a bit wobbly and a little too thin for the size of our programs. We have been trying to focus on let’s reinforce those legs and get them built the right size for the size of the tabletop that we have. It’s not about spending more or too much on administration but it’s making sure we spend the right amount in the right places to support the organization and the programs we deliver.

One of the biggest challenges we have seen for organizations either necessarily or choosing to go through a transformation is in many organizations in our sector, scarcity becomes a badge of honor. Other people need actual databases. We remember everything, and we get it done. There is a lot of truth and honor in the work that people do, the sacrifice that people make to do good work in spite of the systems that don’t support them. Moving away from that and saying, “We are going to have the systems now.”

It can be the hardest to move people away and what’s so challenging about that is often those individuals that are holding on to that scarcity badge of honor are often our most dedicated and purpose committed employees or team members in the organization. How do you bring those people along? I’m curious how you have approached that and whether you have seen that same thing in your organization.

I have seen it not only at CMHA Toronto but in many of the organizations I have worked for over the years. I was on the board of Vantage Point in Vancouver for many years, and they published a book, The Abundant Non Profit, many years ago. I’m trying to get at that. Let go of the notion of scarcity and how do we move to a notion of abundance.

I used that book, to be honest, and I encourage people to think about how do we move from that scarcity mentality to abundance and that it’s not inconsistent with still being client-driven. If we are abundant within the non-profit and our organization, we can be abundant with our services like with our clients and the people we work with within the community. We can help hopefully shift their mentality as well away from scarcity into abundance.

That’s part of how I do this. Let’s tie it into the “how we work with clients.” The other thing that I often say is that, “I believe our staff deserves the support and good tools.” Suffering from computers that don’t work, staplers that are broken or whatever it is that we think we can’t afford to replace, that’s causing us more pain and suffering and probably eating up a lot of our time and our patience, which is better used with our clients.

I try to remind staff, “If something is broken, let someone know so we can fix it. If your computer is not working, you have got to let us know so we can fix it.” That’s not about saving a dollar, it’s about making sure you are supported so that you can focus your time and energy to do the work you want to do, which is for the clients. It does not always work but that’s what I tried.

I find it’s the people that are most disadvantaged by that scarcity mentality that can be the hardest to convince. It’s fascinating to see that concept of abundance that vantage point has done a lot of work on, and we talk a lot about in our sector. From our perspective, we see the need for the board to viewing the organization with abundance as a way of valuing the mission, the purpose, and the work taken toward it. It falls into that magic wand category. If there was one thing, you could change about the sector, switching from scarcity to abundance as the default would get us a long way.

It’s not an easy change, and for some organizations, it may not be possible at the moment. Many of us are under-resourced. Sometimes we have a lot more abundance than we think we do.

That rose-colored glasses, Pollyanna, all of those phrases, when those come out, you have touched a nerve. I want to pivot for the final section of our conversation and hear from you what you are looking forward to as a leader of a very important organization in Canada, contributing to the health of people there in Ontario and CMHA doing work right across the country. What are you seeing as we come out of this pandemic as a leader in your organization?

One of the things that excite me most is that the conversation about mental health and mental illness has never been greater in my lifetime. We have got an opportunity to help reshape our understanding of mental health in our society. For the most part, mental health is seen as mental illness or understood to be a mental illness, and mental illness is understood to happen to other people and not to me.

We have got a real opportunity, and this has been building over the last many years, but now, we have an opportunity to grab onto that and help people see we all live with mental health. There are things every single one of us can do to support the mental health of our own and the people around us. Those opportunities to bring these conversations into schools and workplaces in ways that we have never seen before.

We know that if we support people in their mental health, some people will still develop mental illness but fewer people. Hopefully, we can show people that mental health is a continuum from health to illness and back and that it’s not an individual’s failure if they did develop a mental illness. Hopefully, we can also build support to make the treatments available and supports available for people to get as well as possible, as quickly as possible.

Mental health is a continuum from health to illness and back. It's not an individual's failure if they develop a mental illness. Click To Tweet

The literature is pretty clear. The earlier we intervene on unwellness and illness, the better people’s outcomes are. We have got this amazing opportunity to move that conversation forward and to also move forward and get an integrated and true system of mental healthcare not in Toronto or Ontario but across the country.

Many people have said for many years, the mental healthcare system has been broken, under-resourced and undervalued. I hope that coming out of this pandemic, we have all seen how easy it is for our mental health to suffer. We can relate to people living with mental illnesses in ways we have not been able to before. All of that gives me hope that we will be to come up with and implement a much better and more integrated system.

It’s not at all surprising to me that your answer there goes to the level of the individual all the way up to this system across the country. That is quite the perspective. For leaders who are in the position of working and leading their teams. The mental health is, the mental health of teams, and the resiliency of teams has been a big topic for our clients across the country.

What advice do you have for leaders in terms of providing an environment that is going to be helpful for their teams as we are moving through the end of this pandemic and reopening? Some people are excited about life getting back to normal, and others are quite fearful about what that looks like. What can leaders do to make that transition more effective for their organizations and their people?

One of the ways we are trying to do it is by normalizing the conversation. We are talking about how different people react differently to change. Although this has maybe like I’m hearing it talked about as a return to normal, the reality is it’s yet another change. Everyone responds to change at a different pace. To normalize that and give some language, we use a model. William Bridges was the author of it, where he talked about the ending, the neutral zone, and the new beginning.

Everyone is in a different place with that, and it’s not linear progression through it. Sometimes you will be in the neutral zone and then back into the ending. Sometimes you will be in the neutral zone and think you are in the new beginning only a few days later think, “No, I’m back in the neutral zone.” We are trying to give staff that language so that they can be honest about where they are at in the change acceptance process and to have compassion for one another when they are in different places of that.

The other thing I try to do is I try to role model myself to talk about where I’m at in it and to normalize conversations about how we are doing. Remembering that how we are doing now is not how we are always but to give some space and room for those check-ins about like, “I’m having a rough time with the pandemic, and I want it to be over.” With my patience, I’m over that.

The next day I might be in this like, “I’m so excited. I’m in a great place, and I’m ready to get going.” We have tried to build those into team meetings and make sure that each individual member of the team has an opportunity to check in and to make it okay to be wherever you are on that day in time. Those are a couple of suggestions on giving people a language to talk about it and making space for it.

I said this at the beginning of the pandemic but this is unprecedented. I have never seen the entire world in a crisis before or in my lifetime. There have been times when it has been but in my lifetime. To give ourselves permission to not be as productive and as on, as we might have been prior to the pandemic. We need to extend that through to at least a few months, as we emerge understanding that we don’t know what the new normal is going to be.

It’s not going to be the same as it was but we don’t have a clear new beginning yet. To be okay with yourself and with your teams but there’s still going to be some struggle, and you may not be as productive as you would like or expect. We are all dealing with this, and we can’t phone any of our neighbors to say, “Help me deal with this,” because they are also dealing with it. In a natural disaster, you can phone someone a province away and say like, “I need to talk this through, and you are not going through it, so let’s talk it through.” In this, there has been no one to phone that has not been also going through it.

There’s a sense of community that comes from, “We are all in this together,” but your point is very well taken you. One of the pieces of advice I heard from a board chair that I was working with was, “Through this, we need to understand that our focus should be on doing less but doing it more deeply. Being okay with not covering the waterfront but focusing on what is most important.” Sometimes what is most important is our own health and cells in the situation. Sometimes it’s the health of our organization and in our sector, most days are the missions and the organizational purposes that we serve but being able to recognize where you are at is so critically important.

One of our philosophies is, “You need to take care of yourself in order to take care of others.” As people in the helping professions, that’s often very difficult because we want to be there for other people but reminding staff that you have got to take time for yourself. You have got to take care of yourself so that you can go and take care of clients.

On a lighter note, to finish up our conversation, you move to Toronto during the pandemic. What are you looking forward to, now that everything is going to be opening up here?

I am looking forward to the arts and culture in Toronto. Toronto has such an active art and culture scene. I wanted to be able to take that in. Since I moved here, everything has been closed down. I have not been able to get out to the venues in the way that I would have liked but now, with things opening up again here in Ontario, I’m looking forward to getting out to see some of the very innovative arts and culture that exists in this city.

I hope that opens up quickly for you, and the people reading the show will see you out at those venues.

Yes, I hope so, too. Thank you so much for your time and inviting me to the show.

Thanks for being on.

Important links

About Michael Anhorn

Michael is passionate about helping people live more mentally healthy lives and creating an inclusive society. He has worked for over 20 years in the not-for-profit sector. For the last 8 years, he has lead CMHA Vancouver-Fraser Branch as the Executive Director.

Since joining CMHA, he has led the amalgamation of three formerly independent CMHA branches, oversaw preparation for the Branch’s first accreditation survey with the Council on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities, and has grown annual revenues and associated services by over 35%, including a significant increase in both private fundraising revenue and earned revenue.