In June 2019, Dr. Manon Charbonneau, psychiatrist, former president of the Canadian Psychiatric Association (CPA), Bell Let’s Talk ambassador, and anti-stigma crusader retired after serving two terms on the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s (MHCC’s) board of directors.
“For six years, she was an indomitable voice at our board table,” said MHCC board chair Chuck Bruce. “Even before I became involved at the board level, I knew how lucky the organization was to have her keen intellect, compassion, clinical knowledge, and personal experience to draw upon. Manon is as impressive as she is humble, she is as smart as she is kind, and she is quite literally irreplaceable.”
Throughout her tenure with the MHCC, Charbonneau was a champion for recovery-oriented practice, while proudly standing up for the needs of francophones and linguistic minorities. She was a steadying hand in times of change and an uplifting presence when challenges arose.
Louise Bradley, the MHCC’s president and CEO, still vividly remembers the aftershocks that reverberated after Charbonneau delivered a powerful speech to close out her tenure as CPA president. “She got up on that stage and turned convention on its head. She was fearless and compelling as she described her own experience with depression. I cannot overstate how brave it was for her to make herself vulnerable in front of her peers. What she did, to break down stigma, to embody contact-based education, to make meaningful cracks in the profession’s veneer of infallibility — it was more than game changing. For those who came after, it was life changing.”
Charbonneau’s big gamble paid off. Not only did she receive accolades for her courage, she was named chairwoman of a CPA working group to fight stigmatization and discrimination in mental health — a role she held with distinction for 10 years.
“The MHCC has been so lucky to have Manon’s wise counsel,” affirmed Bradley. “You don’t often get to sit side by side with a psychiatrist who so candidly acknowledges the patient’s perspective, having lived it herself.”
A second depressive episode followed when Charbonneau was diagnosed with breast cancer. Once more, she was open and forthright about the treatment that suppressed her cancer — and her joie de vivre right along with it. Today, she credits her ongoing recovery to family, friends, medication, and appropriate mental health care.
“Manon opened a window on her life and, in so doing, she showed us all that, with hope, support, and the right treatment, we can recover our equilibrium,” said Bruce. “But even more than this, she showed us that being vulnerable takes strength — and sometimes even doctors need a helping hand.”
Bradley concurs. “I’ll get out my soapbox one more time and say this: health-care providers can’t provide care if they themselves are depleted. We need more Manon Charbonneaus in the world to fly this flag. We need more doctors and nurses to stand up and say, “we’re human, too.” If we want to change the culture of stoicism and self-stigma that continues to pervade health care, each one of us needs to step up to the plate.”
In fact, Bradley credits Charbonneau’s example as the reason she came forward with her own lived experience. “After Manon was so powerful and so brave, it didn’t feel right to stay silent. I know I’m not the only person who feels this way — and all credit to her for challenging us to own our experiences and share them widely. There is no doubt we’ll miss her a great deal — but her impact will continue to be felt at the MHCC and beyond for years to come.”