Paying it forward for mental health patients

A generous act of kindness from a grateful patient at UHN’s Centre for Mental Health, part of Toronto Western Hospital, has now evolved into a community effort.

In 2015, Dr. Dennis Kussin, medical director of the Community Mental Health Clinic, received a donation of $10,000 through the Honour Your Hero program. Catherine Vernon, Community Mental Health Clinic’s administrative assistant, came up with the idea of using the money to buy grocery gift cards for patients in need during the holiday season. Monetary donations are accepted 365 days a year, and are used to purchase gift cards, which are primarily distributed in December.

“Not only are these grocery gift cards a beacon of hope, but it’s also allowing our patients to step into the world and step into the holiday season and celebrate,” says Catherine.

Last year, holiday festivities were memorable for Maria Bautista, a patient at the Clinic. “That little card helped us to cover expenses that we couldn’t afford at Christmas time. With this money, I was able to make a special dinner for my kids for Christmas.”

Dr. Dennis Kussin (left), and Catherine Vernon, are motiving staff and community members to keep this holiday tradition alive.

Dr. Dennis Kussin (left), and Catherine Vernon, are motiving staff and community members to keep this holiday tradition alive.

Now in its fifth year, the Grocery Gift Card Fund helps underprivileged patients by providing them with $50 gift cards to go shopping for a nice meal, instead of relying on food banks or going hungry during these cold, dark months. Unfortunately, the fund ran out of money in 2017, and since then Catherine and Dr. Kussin have been appealing to UHN staff, partners and community members to keep this initiative going.

Winter can be a trying time for individuals struggling with their mental health, and many patients who come through the Clinic also have chronic health issues, rely on social assistance, or have families of their own to support. Every patient has their own story, and that is why clinicians and staff band together every year to raise a minimum of $5,000, which is enough for 100 grocery gift cards.

“For a number of our patients, this is their chance at a Christmas meal – buying groceries and making dinner,” says Dr. Kussin. “They can buy what they want, they can choose their own food. It normalizes the process of purchasing groceries, and is an empowering experience.”

“I think it also helps our clinicians and staff, in some way, alleviate someone’s suffering,” says Catherine. “We may not be able to heal a patient’s illness overnight, but this is something we can do to provide help and hope. It’s a little spark of joy.”

“Fifty bucks to somebody who has no food,” adds Dr. Kussin, “is a major gift.”

To provide good cheer for those in need at UHN’s Centre for Mental Health this holiday, or throughout the year, make your gift here.