Making a Difference for those with Mental Illness, by Scott Harrison RN

The events of the past week in Newtown, Connecticut are almost beyond comprehension.  Whilst the media attempt to help the public ‘make sense’ of a senseless tragedy, social media sites are alive with debate on who is to blame, how further tragedy can be avoided and questions about what happens next.

As a Registered Nurse who has worked with marginalized populations for my (to date) 20 year career in nursing, it saddens me deeply to see discussions and reports that further stigmatize both youth and people living with mental illness.  Our collective cultural deification of violence and guns lies in stark contrast to our attitude and approach to mental illness and the vulnerability of youth.

But there is hope.  There are people who care deeply about youth mental health and are willing to make a difference by putting compassion into action and dollars behind their words.   As Director of Urban Health and HIV/AIDS at Providence Health Care, I am proud to co-lead the Inner City Youth Mental Health Team.  Launched in 2007 as a pilot project in partnership with Covenant House, a dedicated and compassionate team of Psychiatrists, Nurses, Social Workers, Occupational Therapists and Youth Workers make a difference every day in the lives of Vancouver’s most marginalized youth.

Silver Wheaton, a Vancouver based mining company, has seen the value of addressing youth homelessness, detachment and mental illness and donated $1.6 million to help our program reach yet more youth.  This kind of socially just, community aware approach to business is what our city, and cities across North America needs.    Our next generation is worth the investment.

Our culture in North America promotes a ‘together alone’ life, where we are connected by technology and not humanity.   Youth are labeled, dismissed and told ‘you will grow out of it’, or ‘it gets better’.   Mental illness and personality disorders are personalized and stigmatized – another way of making a distinction between ‘me’ and ‘you’.

The mental health and wellness of our communities is our collective responsibility.  As nurses, we have the opportunity to not only provide care at the frontlines, but to influence policy, be leaders in community responses to mental illness, crime and dysfunction and model our values of compassion, attachment and caring.    Our society is facing a crisis – and where there are crises, there are nurses.   Not only can we, as Registered Nurses, make a huge difference, in the moment and face to face with those who are hurt and grieving, but as policy makers, advocates and role models.   It is time for nursing to stand up and show people that there is hope.


Scott Harrison RN BScN MA CCHN(C) is Director of Urban Health & HIV/AIDS with Providence Health Care and President of the Canadian Association of Nurses in AIDS Care. Originally from the UK, Scott is an experienced nurse, midwife and health care leader with over twenty years of clinical experience with marginalized populations. Focussing on HIV/AIDS, mental illness and poverty, he is a passionate advocate for nursing, social justice and compassionate care.


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Paddy Rodney

Scott, many thanks for your thoughtful blog. I certainly agree that the mental health and wellness of our communities is our collective responsibility. And I think that the CNA "Call to Action" (2012) document can help us to work out how best to act on that collective responsibility...


I'm so sorry I missed this when it was first posted. This is a really great response to some of the truly negative media that has been circulating since the Newtown shooting. I hate that every time they mention the shooter, they mention his mental state or talk about his family as if they should have somehow equated the fact that he was struggling with the likelihood that he would do this. We handle mental illness so poorly as a society. I applaud Mr. Harrison on the work he does and hope all RNs will support our colleagues who are willing to tackle this tough part of healthcare.