Mental health 'recovery college' opens in downtown Calgary

A new user-friendly, accessible mental health centre opened in Calgary Tuesday.

Trained support staff consists of people who have lived through their own mental health challenges

Priscilla Cherry is one of 16 peer support workers who provide counselling at Recovery Centre Calgary, a unique new mental health centre that opened Tuesday in downtown Calgary. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

The Calgary chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) has launched Alberta's first "recovery college."

It's located at the association's brand new centre at the corner of 10th Street and Seventh Avenue S.W., right on the CTrain line.

The recovery centre and recovery college offer more than 40 wellness courses developed and taught by 16 support staff who have lived through their own mental health or addiction challenges. Support staff also receive 120 hours of training, 70 hours of in-class work and a 50-hour internship, both in the organization and within the community.

Building a national network

The recovery centre is the first of its kind in Alberta. There are three others across Canada, with plans to open additional centres in Edmonton and Fort McMurray.

All of it is provided free of charge to the public, said CMHA executive director of the Calgary region Laureen MacNeil. 

One of the first challenges to providing mental health services is to create ways for people to easily access them, MacNeil said, which played a role in the decision to locate the recovery centre in a storefront location near the CTrain.

"We know many people find it challenging to start that first conversation," MacNeil said in an interview on The Homestretch.

Power of peer counselling

The recovery centre focuses on creating an environment where individuals seeking counselling connect with counselors who may have been through something similar to what they're experiencing.

"There's great evidence around peer support," MacNeil said.

"The ability to gain trust with someone who's had a similar experience. I always describe it as: if you want to train to hike a mountain here in Alberta, do you want to go with someone who's been up that mountain and back, or someone who decided to write an article and has never been up that mountain?"

Laureen MacNeil, the executive director for the Calgary chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association, says the city's new mental health centre was designed to help encourage people 'to have that first conversation' about mental health. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

Overcoming isolation 

Priscilla Cherry is one of 16 peer supporters who've gone through 120 hours of training. She struggled through depression — and became suicidal — after being sexually abused as a child.

Cherry took 15 years to seek help, during which time she lived in a state of emotional isolation.

She hopes to be able to put her insight and experience into helping others feel less isolated.

"We use the things that we've been through to empower other people," she said. "If anyone is shy or is thinking about, I'm not sure if I should reach out, just come, or just give us a call — [or] just show up."

The recovery centre also is offering 40 classes in classrooms as well as online.

Subjects range from parenting after violence to coping with current events.

Individuals who enrol will receive 120 hours worth of education, training and mentorship skills development, hands-on learning and ultimately, work placement, with the idea being they may ultimately become peer support counselors themselves.

"It's utilizing that talent and the skills and the experience of peers, people with lived experience with mental health as well as students who have been taking the classes," said Damian Cieslak, a recovery trainer at CMHA.

Calgarians have new access to mental health support. The Canadian Mental Health Association in Calgary opened the Centre for Excellence in Recovery and Peer Support today. Laureen MacNeil is the executive director of the CMHA Calgary. 7:13

"It's not what you find at a typical college or university," he said. "It's practicing real-world skills and things they can use every day in their lives to help them on their recovery journey."

There's no wait for drop-in visitors. The peer support counselors are a diverse workforce, in order to better represent the community.

"The whole idea is that you come in and have a conversation, but we [also]  open up a lot of the other services that we have," she said. "A lot of people don't know where to start their journey, so we hope that we become the first stop, but we [also] work with a lot of other organizations."

With files from The Homestretch and Jennifer Lee