HOpe Café counters stigma around mental illness

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      A new coffee shop has opened in the HOpe Centre: The Greta and Robert H. N. Ho Centre for Psychiatry and Education at Lions Gate Hospital. But it’s not just any café. A partnership of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Vancouver Coastal Health, and Blenz Coffee, the HOpe Café is a social enterprise that employs people with “lived experience” of mental illness and is the first of its kind in British Columbia.

      Matt Mazzei is a barista there who also has bipolar disorder. He was diagnosed nine years ago at age 20 and has spent time over the past several years either hospitalized or living in group homes for people with mental illness. Since he started working at the Blenz HOpe Café, however, he’s been able to move into an apartment with a friend.

      “I am so happy to work in such an understanding environment,” Mazzei says in an interview at the expansive space with floor-to-ceiling windows, which also has a large patio on the corner of St. Andrew’s Avenue and East 13th Street. “There’s understanding and compassion and empathy here. I have a great team of people supporting me. I’m doing well. I’m healthier than I’ve ever been. I can manage to have a job so I can afford to live on my own, which is fantastic.

      “It’s so fantastic to get back into the work force,” he adds. “It’s so hopeful. My goal is not to depend on government funding; my goal is to financially support myself. I have so much support at my job and…I can really lean on the people around me.”

      The recently opened HOpe Centre has a 26-bed psychiatric inpatient unit, space for outpatient clinics and community mental-health programs, the Djavad Mowafaghian UBC Medical Education Centre, a clinical-research-trials unit, the Kelty Dennehy Mental Health Resource Centre (which provides information on mental-health issues to patients, families, and the community), and an ambulance station for the B.C. Ambulance Service. The centre is big and bright, with a mission to break down the stigma associated with mental illness. The café itself opened in December but had its launch on January 15 at a packed public event where Dr. Allan Burgmann, the medical director of inpatient psychiatry at the centre, was among the speakers.

      “The minute the coffee shop opened, it established a sense of community in this building, which is important for staff members, students, clinicians, patients, and family members visiting with their loved ones who may have been admitted or are having outpatient appointments, but, more importantly, the thing I love more than anything is that it’s open to the public, and people from the neighbourhood are coming and grabbing a cup of coffee,” Burgmann said. “Very quickly, it begins to erode that stigma of mental illness.

      “The brilliance of this partnership is that it’s forging a relationship where people can, at a certain stage of recovery, get employed, get some work experience, have a sense of purpose, and get back into their lives, which is phenomenal,” he added. “It’s another innovative step in us getting people back, well, and into the community.”

      Shawn Pattison, the vice president of Blenz, was on hand to explain how the company got involved. He said the process of evaluating the business model of this particular franchise was unlike any other in the company’s roster.

      “The traditional measures of analyzing return were different,” he said. “We didn’t care what the metrics were; we just knew it was good. It’s good for a lot of reasons. It’s good for the community; it’s good for B.C.; and it’s good for people directly benefiting from this.”

      HOpe Café manager Jo-Anne MacDougall has lived experience, having been diagnosed with anxiety about three years ago. For years prior to that, she assumed her experiences of dizziness were due to vertigo.

      “I finally had a psychiatrist say to me, ‘We consider you a mental-health emergency,’ ” she recalls, sitting next to Mazzei in the sunny café. “I was very ill before my diagnosis, before I entered into the therapy that I received—the group therapy and the one-on-one therapy.

      “For the café, I was trained as a franchisee and given new purpose in my life,” she says. “My goal was to hire, train, and mentor a fine team of individuals who have become great baristas. That may sound very boring, but it has been great for me because two-and-a-half years ago I would not have been able to attain this goal. As an individual with the lived experience of anxiety, I could not leave my house. I have the benefit of working with an amazing team of people in an inclusive environment. I think every workplace should be more inclusive.”

      Follow Gail Johnson on Twitter at @gailjohnsonwork.



      Tara McGuire

      Mar 29, 2015 at 3:16pm

      What an amazing and groundbreaking idea. So happy that the community is supporting this venture. Open hearts and caffeine all in one place.