“My name is Henry”

by John Podstawka

Published Jan. 30, 2019, last updated Jan. 30, 2019, 2:39 a.m.

“My name is Henry*.” A frail hand of an older gentleman reached out to grasp mine as I was leaving shelter volunteering. Understanding from the lonely look in his eyes that he needed to talk to someone, I sat with him. Henry told me he was suffering from alcohol addiction and simply wanted to tell me about his day. I quickly noticed his hands started shaking. Fearing Henry would develop a seizure, we offered to call medical services. He declined, and suddenly, he tore the door open and frantically ran from the shelter, shouting that he would return after a drink.

I discovered he was one of many patrons suffering from addiction. I realized if Henry were to ever recover and function by conventional societal standards, he would not only need to treat his immediate condition, but have a long-term plan and infrastructure to help him get back on his feet. Internalizing these concepts, I began working with, and leading, The Mustard Seed, University of Calgary (UofC) Chapter.

To provide context, at The Mustard Seed shelter, immediate problems are tackled and support networks are created to aid disenfranchised people. Once individuals feel ready to take the next steps, The Mustard Seed aids them in searching for jobs and housing. Leading The Mustard Seed UofC Chapter, I advocated on behalf of marginalized populations through fundraising events, speaker seminars on poverty and mental health, and interactive poverty simulations. By providing activities and shelter volunteering opportunities to the UofC, we brought awareness and bright and compassionate minds to tackle homelessness in Calgary.

The Mustard Seed downtown support center in Calgary, Alberta.

Having finished leading The Mustard Seed UofC Chapter, I took a few steps back and looked at the bigger picture. It was clear that mental illness and addiction were a major cause of chronic homelessness in Calgary. Around this time, Peter, BRIGHT International’s Executive Director, introduced me to BRIGHT’s goal of turning policy and innovation into actionable solutions and clinical application.

I began thinking of Calgary’s mental health and addiction problem in the context of BRIGHT International’s framework, and searched for policies which look to improve mental health and addiction care in Calgary. Doing a search, I found the Alberta Health Services (AHS) Health & Business Plans, a public accountability document highlighting the goals, standards and responsibilities to be met by the provincial healthcare system between 2017 and 2020. Specifically, I am focussing on GOAL 1: Part 4, which targets the improvement of access to community addiction and mental health services for adults, children and families.

I am now working with addiction services and mental health establishments across Calgary. I am learning the roles these organizations play in treating mental health problems and addiction, how they collaborate, the extent of AHS’s role in light of the AHS Health & Business Plan, and improvements they want to see implemented in their ability to provide care.

I must conduct a thorough and compassionate investigation to improve the lives of people like Henry. By providing opportunity to translate policy into actionable implementation, I hope to make the road to recovery easier for those suffering through addiction and mental health problems.

*Names were changed out of respect for individual privacy.

John Podstawka is currently completing a Master’s of Science supervised by Dr. Bryan Yipp.