Pat Capponi has survived childhood abuse, mental illness, frequent hospitalizations, and poverty. Since 1978, when she was discharged from a psychiatric ward to a large, for- profit boarding home for de-institutionalized patients in Parkdale, she has fought for her beleaguered community on many fronts.
Informed by her own traumatic experiences, for the next three decades Pat advocated for supportive housing, patients’ rights, employment, engagement, and helped to give voice to those whose lives have been so severely circumscribed by the label they carry.
Beginning with touring then provincial Ontario Minister of Health Larry Grossman through the sub-standard and appalling homes where “former mental patients” were warehoused, to putting out a tiny magazine called the Cuckoo’s Nest, to a cable show of the same name, to engaging with providers on the Supportive Housing Coalition (now Mainstay Housing), to her ground breaking memoir Upstairs in the Crazy House, she was determined not to accept the unacceptable.
In her early efforts, she was an active part of provincial initiatives at mental health reform (the Graham Committee), engaged with bureaucrats and politicians and psychiatrists and other providers. She served as a founding member of the Provincial Patient Advocate Office Advisory Committee, and took a seat on the board of the Clarke Institute and then the inaugural board of CAMH. To ensure that current and former patients could speak to their own identified needs, she implemented a Leadership Facilitation Course aimed at ‘chronic patients’ around the province, and served on the Mayor’s Action Task Force on Discharged Psychiatric Patients chaired by Dr. Reva Gerstein. She educated herself to the point that she appeared at numerous inquests as an acknowledged expert in housing and aftercare.
During all this, she wrote four more books of non-fiction, published by Penguin, travelling across Canada to look at inner city poverty, the state of the mentally ill in the country and policing, appearing frequently on national and local media. Profiled by June Callwood’s National Treasures, accustomed to speaking to large groups of health care workers from British Columbia to Prince Edward Island, Pat considered herself an ambassador from her community to the rest of society.
As lead facilitator for Voices from the Street, she works with the homeless, those with mental health and addiction issues, newcomers whose credentials have been refused, and battered women, helping to lower silo walls, and teaching public speaking, the responsibility of advocacy, and the ways public policy can be impacted. She was recently appointed to the Consent and Capacity Board as a part time member.
Currently, Pat co-chairs the mental health sub-committee of the Toronto Police Board, she serves on the steering committee of Civic Action, and the local Health Council, and for the Ministry of Community and Social Services has moved from the Social Assistance Review Advisory Council to the Employment Focused Working Group.
Pat identifies her work with RACI (Resident and Consumer Initiative) as, along with the Gerstein Centre, the most innovative and exciting development of all her efforts. The award winning RACI, which is composed of psychiatric residents at U of T, and psychiatric survivors from Voices, meet in each other’s homes once a month- for five years now- to discuss what the residents are learning and to share real life experiences. Through RACI, members of Voices are leading seminars at CAMH, and helping to develop a more empowering curriculum for residents working with chronic patients.
She has written two works of fiction, for a total of seven book, mysteries set in a Parkdale rooming house, published by HarperCollins, using this medium as yet another way to show the aspirations and humanity of those labelled mentally ill.
Her work has been recognized by government and by providers. She is a member of the Order of Ontario, has received from the CMHA the C.M. Hincks award, and is a recipient of the Jubilee and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medals.
On July 1st 2015, Pat received the Order of Canada for her contributions as an important voice for the homeless and for those living with mental illness. In a recent Toronto Star article Pat shares her message that patients are people who must be treated with respect and dignity. They need more than medication. They need what we all do — stability, love, a safe place to live, a purpose. Her mantra is known to be “a home, a job, a friend.”