Brian Adams could have finished his career as a psychologist in a large urban centre, but a move to Orillia more than 40 years ago turned out to be a good fit for him — and an invaluable benefit to this community.
Born in Vancouver, Adams moved around with his family and attended high school in Burlington.
He went on to attend Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) in Montreal, where he earned a bachelor of arts with a major in psychology.
He then set off for the University of Toronto and received a master’s degree in social work.
He moved back to Montreal because he was working as a director for a summer camp at a large institutional operation in the area.
His work with youth continued when he accepted a contract position in Sarnia, working for the Ministry of Correctional Services with adolescents in the juvenile court system.
He then found himself on the cutting edge of mental health care in Orillia when, in 1977, he was hired as a social worker to provide clinical assessment and treatment to people with psychiatric and significant mental health issues at a new clinic operated by Orillia Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital.
The purpose of the clinic — one of the first in the province to receive government funding for a community mental health program — was to be “non-institutional.”
“Even though it was affiliated with the hospital, you weren’t going to a hospital. It was community based,” Adams explained.
“The treatment philosophy — and it continues to this day — is the most effective treatment for people that experience a lot of mental health-related problems is in the community that they’re a part of, rather than isolated and away from the community. That has stood the test of time over the years.”
He would meet with people where they felt comfortable, whether it was at the clinic, in a coffee shop or at their homes.
That work eventually led him to become involved with the Orillia Learning Centre, as some of the people he was helping were students there. He would occasionally visit the learning centre to meet with them.
“Before long, more and more students, because they knew who I was because of my visit, were asking to meet with me,” he said. “I always thought that was a really good trend, where people were openly asking for help because they know who you are.”
Eventually, he started going every week — a practice he maintained until his retirement.
“It decreased, significantly, the need for those people to go to the clinic for service or go to the emerg department at the hospital because they were getting an immediate connection, which I think is worth its weight in stone,” Adams said.
His passion for those students was so strong, he began to provide a bursary.
First, he teamed up with the city’s former daily newspaper, the Packet & Times, to sponsor a community bursary. Later, he started his own. It is awarded to students, chosen by learning centre staff, who have overcome difficulties and experienced achievement by believing in themselves.
That award will remain in place as long as the learning centre is around.
Adams is a regular at the centre’s graduation ceremonies and he feels an “enormous level of pride” as they accept their diplomas.
“I knew what some of the journeys were that the students had taken, and they weren’t pleasant journeys — histories of difficulties that covered the gamut of what we call the psychosocial problems,” he said, adding those can include troubles with relationships, work, crime, substance abuse, poverty, homelessness and mental health.
“To see those same students sitting in those rows and coming up and graduating, and hearing them articulate what their goal was, it was very gratifying.”
The learning centre isn’t the only organization to benefit from Adams’s generosity and compassion.
Earlier this year, he donated $15,000 to the Orillia Youth Centre.
He is also on the board of directors for the Seven South Street Treatment Centre, which assists men with addiction. He used to run a weekly group program there and was recruited to the board when he retired.
He serves on the board for North Simcoe Victim Services and has helped provide volunteer training.
When he was on the executive committee with the Building Hope campaign, he pushed for an on-site mental health and addiction service at the new shelter.
“That’s been a really important piece to have in place because the whole premise is if you can help someone at the moment when they’re really feeling the most distressed, it helps to resolve some of the difficulty,” Adams said.
Despite being retired, he continues to help those in need. Part of the reason is simply because he still lives in Orillia.
“When I walk the main street daily, or through the park, I still see some of the same things. I forever run into people that I’ve known professionally over the years and I still have contacts with a number of them, more informally,” he said.
He meets with people and volunteers to help them navigate the mental health system, which can be a daunting task for many.
“This community has gone from, literally, famine to feast in terms of the availability of mental health services,” he said.
When he arrived in town, there were “virtually no mental health facilities at all, with the exception of the newly funded community mental health clinic at the hospital and two psychiatrists that had community practices.”
“Now there is a multitude of services, but if you try to access those services through the mind of a family member or someone struggling, they’re not very accessible,” he said. “I’m vocal about that because I feel strongly about it and it doesn’t have to be that way.”
More work needs to be done to share resources among agencies and services, he said.
“Each program is like a fortress with a drawbridge. Rather than lower the drawbridge and welcome people in, the drawbridge gets raised when the person comes to the door,” he said, adding he still hears from people who have difficulty accessing services and are referred to various other places. “What happens is people just give up.”
Some might then believe the person is not motivated to seek help.
“The very fact that the person made the first contact, as difficult as it may have been, that’s important. How we respond to that first contact is pivotal,” he said.
Adams can often be found downtown, chatting with people he has helped. Sometimes it’s as simple as asking them how they’re doing. Other times, he’s taking action to make sure they’re cared for.
He recently ran into someone he knew who was applying to the Ontario Disability Support Program. It can be a laborious process, but it’s one Adams has assisted people with “hundreds of times” over the years, so he helped the man complete his forms.
“I know if he went to the hospital or a mental health clinic or some other service and asked for help, he wouldn’t get it because he wasn’t maybe a client or a patient of the program at the time,” he said.
So, in his retirement, he is still doing his part to patch some of the holes in the system.
However, it isn’t only the system that needs improvement. The way many individuals view mental health and addiction needs to change, too, according to Adams.
One of the greatest misunderstandings about addiction “is that somehow they willed this upon themselves,” he said.
“That’s a terrible myth.”
He sometimes comes across people in town who are too high to hold a conversation.
“I know some of those people and I know they don’t want to be so intoxicated that they can’t function, yet they are, and the next day they are,” he said.
He understands it is often a personal choice to try drugs for the first time, but added, “addiction, by definition, is more than just personal choice.”
“The difference is the disease component, which is driven on multiple levels,” he said, noting one of the factors is the compulsive nature of addiction.
“When someone starts to overuse a drug or a chemical or a liquid or whatever it is, they don’t set out to become addicted. That’s not the goal. That’s what comes as a byproduct of the use.”
It creates an “almost unstoppable quest to get that drug in your system, and that’s what the disease is all about,” he said.
He spoke with someone recently who had switched from doing lines of cocaine to smoking crack cocaine.
“They’re very concerned, but the euphoria, the high that came with that, was unparalleled,” Adams said.
To be properly and effectively treated, people have to get to the point where they say, “I can’t do it anymore.”
“Fortunately, there are enough people that reach that point but with multiple, multiple stumbles along the way,” he said.
For those who don’t find sobriety, harm reduction is needed, Adams said, adding that can include needle-exchange programs, safe-consumption sites or reduced use.
Sometimes, even harm reduction isn’t enough — something Adams knows too well.
He has spoken at the funerals of some of those who have lost their fights with addiction. It’s especially difficult when they’re people who had achieved sobriety before relapsing.
“Sobriety is fragile, very fragile, and you don’t take it for granted,” he said. “The relapse rate is high, but for someone who’s conquered the demon and got to the top of their game … and loses the battle, it’s very saddening.”
Adams sees all of them as people, not statistics. He doesn’t judge them by their appearance or criminal history or behaviour.
“Behind all of that behaviour, there’s a person in there and that person didn’t set out on a journey to become all of those things,” he said. “It’s not accepting the behaviour or making excuses for it; it’s to understand what were some of the factors that led this person to go down this particular road.”
Adams doesn’t give up on the people he helps and he hopes society won’t, either.
“It’s easy, if someone has fallen, just to leave them lying on the ground,” he said. “Maybe we have some responsibility to pick them back up, even though that can happen multitudes of times.”
Adams thought he’d be here for a few years, long enough to help the community mental health clinic through its infancy, but he remained with the program until his retirement in August 2015.
When he was working and studying in Montreal, he said, he “couldn’t imagine living anywhere else in the world.”
“Now I can’t imagine being anywhere else but Orillia.”
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