11 Champions for Mental Health

Starting from the top row, left to right: John Cameron, Ryan Gerdes, Vincent Agyapong, Tim Hay, Michael Saunders, Krishna Gupta, Adam Abba-Aji, Averie McNary, Scott McKeen, Pamela Spurvey, Dao Haddad.

The Foundation recently released a new video and, for those of you who watched it, you may be wondering who the community members at the end are. 

These 11 individuals demonstrate a commitment to mental health in our community.

Our tagline at the Mental Health Foundation is “we have a better future in mind,”  and when we say “we,” we want the members of our community to feel like that includes them, because we’re making change together.

This visionary spirit inhabits these 11 individuals, who were chosen because of the impact they’re making in Edmonton on behalf of those with mental illness. Whether in their personal lives, or through their work, they strive to pave a way forward to a future where we can better foster resilient individuals.

John Cameron

Why he’s included: John brings mental health out from the sidelines and onto the stage. 

If you aren’t familiar with him already, you will be soon. John Cameron has long been an active voice in the community, bringing the Singing Christmas Tree to life every holiday season. Last year, John Cameron launched Crescendo, a new live entertainment event geared toward mental health awareness and fundraising. Complete with a live orchestra and choir, Crescendo took the crowd along for a ride, shifting between tones to reveal the complexity of mental illness.The concert—with proceeds benefiting the Mental Health Foundation and the Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation—made quite the splash, going on to win an Edmonton Event Award for Outstanding Fundraiser Event earlier this month. John recently formed the John Cameron Changing Lives Foundation in order to increase his impact in the community and further bolster mental health. Next up: Crescendo is gearing up for its second year on May 4. It promises to be even more spectacular than last year, and we can’t wait for the community to see what he’s got cooking.

You can get your tickets for Crescendo now on the Winspear website.


Ryan Gerdes

Why he’s included: Not content to simply manage his own illness, Ryan wants to make the system better for others. Adults, take notice. 

Ryan has been navigating the system since he was 14, with mixed success. After years of struggling with symptoms that didn’t lead to a diagnosis, Ryan was told he had emergent borderline symptoms. “At first, it felt like a death sentence,” says Ryan. Borderline Personality Disorder cannot be treated with medication, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy is not easily accessed in Edmonton. Unable to find the care they needed here in Edmonton, his family traveled to the States with him to get treatment in a psychiatric hospital. He was fortunate to find therapy that helped him manage his mental health, and has remarkedly improved. Ryan is now a Youth Advisor at ACCESS Open Minds, providing his perspective on aspects of the program so it can be more patient-informed and tailored to the youth who use it. He sees the path to better mental health as a democracy: “doctors are well-educated, but so are people with lived experience. Their perspective should be taken into account.”

Dr. Vincent Agyapong

Why he’s included: In a system that can feel overwhelming and complicated, Dr. Agyapong proposes simple solutions with big impact. 

Dr. Agyapong refuses to settle for the status quo. His work demonstrates this, through its commitment to improving access to mental health supports for the general population, whether through e-mental health initiatives or group psychotherapy. In 2016 he launched a supportive texting program, Text4Mood, in northern Alberta, which offers positive messages to improve mental wellness; his team was astonished by the level of the results. People reported improved wellbeing across the board. He is now working with an Edmonton team to expand the project. The new initiative, named Text4Support, will ensure that all individuals on waiting lists for mental health interventions get supplementary support tailored to the condition they’re struggling with.

Though texts are no replacement for treatment, it is a genuine effort to help patients feel cared for in between treatment. When so many have expressed feeling unheard and unnoticed, it’s a big step forward. Dr. Agyapong was recently recognized by the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association as the Innovator of the Year.


Tim Hay

Why he’s included: It took him years to find a place of peace; he’s determined to lead others there. 

You may recognize Tim Hay if you attended our annual breakfast in 2017. Tim tirelessly advocates for better access to brain stimulation, a technology that is proven to improve quality of life for people with treatment-resistant depression. For almost 2 decades, Tim has battled his own depression and endured an endless search for a treatment that would lighten his load. We’re grateful for Tim’s generosity; telling the story of one’s mental illness can be difficult, but he continues to help us communicate the urgency and need for technological investment in mental health. As he’s often heard to say, “there’s no silver bullet to fix depression,” but we do have the tools to manage mental illness, and we have the potential to be mentally healthier as a community. Tim’s advocacy has already brought us closer, with a new brain stimulation program to be implemented this fall.

Mike Saunders

Why he’s included: Mike is the face of responsible corporate leadership, intent on making an impact both in the private sector and in the community. 

Mike is the newest addition to the Mental Health Foundation board. Vice President of Development at Qualico, Mike first became involved with the Foundation through Qualico’s sponsorship of the Foundation’s 2017 breakfast. Like most people, Mike has experienced mental illness within his own family, and is committed to being part of positive change in mental health care. He co-chaired our most recent annual fundraiser and, along with co-chair Tim Varughese, was instrumental in rallying the corporate community together in support of child and adolescent mental health.


Krishna Gupta

Why she’s included: A passionate philanthropist, Krishna understands that when you address mental illness, you improve other societal issues as well.

Krishna and her family use their charitable activities to remove barriers to success. As we’ve mentioned elsewhere, in addition to mental illness, her philanthropic efforts address homelessness, childhood trauma and illness, and the challenges of being a newcomer. Krishna has been a longtime supporter of the Foundation, contributing her time and money to improving mental health care in Edmonton. Most recently she held a birthday celebration that benefited the Foundation. Her vision and commitment inspire us daily.

Dr. Adam Abba-Aji

Why he’s included: Dr. Abba-Aji belongs to a first wave of psychiatrists committed to delivering care specially tailored to young adults. 

It may not seem so novel to structure treatment around what a youth determines is best for them, but as the lead psychiatrist for ACCESS Open Minds, his work doing just that is part of a program that is the first of its kind in Edmonton. He’s become a champion for a type of service that meets youth where they’re at. No red tape, no referral run around, just a warm welcome and a promise to help a youth get the support they need.

“It’s patient-centered, not therapy-centered; we let them do what they want to do. The patient is in the driver’s seat,” says Dr. Abba-Aji. If we continue with this type of model, we’ll catch youth earlier in their conditions, and give them a higher chance of success. “We’re building a place a youth want to visit.”


Scott McKeen

Why he’s included: Governmental change has to start locally; Scott is committed to driving civic initiatives that address mental illness.

Perhaps Edmonton’s most recognizable councilor, Scott is well known for his frank discussion of mental illness, particularly his own personal struggles with depression and alcoholism. One of Scott’s major initiatives is Mental Health and Urban isolation. He is determined to overcome stigma in order to address the factors that lead to loneliness and mental illness in our city. He is also actively involved in the city’s first suicide prevention implementation plan, which was approved for funding last week. Having Scott as an outspoken champion for mental health ensures it stays on the city’s agenda, with benefits for us all.


Pam Spurvey

Why she’s included: Pam’s overcome tremendous personal struggles, and now shares her understanding as a peer support worker. 

Read our article on Pam here, and learn more about the warm hand-off approach.


Dao Haddad

Why she’s included: It’s no secret teachers have to do a little of everything; Dao helps support student mental health by championing a program called All in for Youth.

Dao is the assistant principal at Delton Elementary, one of the highest risk schools in Edmonton: poverty is typical and most students come to school with some degree of trauma. It’s Dao’s job to understand all the aspects of the students’ lives that may interfere with learning. For many students, that means learning to regulate their emotions so they can focus on class. Before All in for Youth, teachers had to work in overdrive; now, they have support staff. Dao is a champion of the program, knowing from personal experience the challenges of coming from a home with few resources. As she remarked in the video, kids can feel when they are being supported, and their potential for growth is huge. We hope to see more schools adopt programs like this in the future.


The Foundation is honored to know so many passionate folks in the community with a drive to improve mental health care. Know someone else who’s doing amazing work in the field? Let us know!