By Shelley White
When asked how she became one of the country’s leading advocates in the area of mental health, Sandi Treliving remembers the evening in 2010 that sparked an enduring passion in her philanthropic work.
Sandi and her husband, businessman and star of CBC Dragons’ Den, Jim Treliving, were living in Texas at the time but were in Toronto for the weekend. They had been invited to UnMasked, a fundraising event put on by CAMH: The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, an organization that Sandi wasn’t familiar with back then.
“My husband said to me, ‘So, what are we doing tonight?’ His typical question. I said, ‘Well, we’ve been invited to this event. It has something to do with mental health,’” Sandi recalls. “It ended up being a game changer for me.”
At the event, Sandi and Jim were seated at a table with the late Michael Wilson, a former federal Finance Minister under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Michael had lost his son, Cameron, to suicide when Cameron was just 29 years old, and dedicated his later life to raising awareness and ending the stigma around mental health. Also seated at the table with Sandi and Jim was a representative for the CAMH Foundation, which raises and stewards funds for CAMH, Canada’s largest mental health teaching hospital and research centre.
“I was really blown away with the people that I spoke with that evening,” Sandi says. Listening to her tablemates talk about the advances in support and treatment being pioneered at CAMH, she knew she had found her calling.
“Being exposed to mental health challenges at a very young age with my brother’s illness, I always knew that I was going to do something in the mental health world. But I had been quite discouraged throughout the years because of the lack of change in treatment and the stigma attached to mental health.”
“I was just so happy to hear that the transition had been made from a life sentence of no support for people living with mental illness to an opportunity for wellness. And the respect and the dignity that goes along with that. It just completely changed my own thinking and was the impetus for me to get involved,” she says. “I toured the campus the next day and said, ‘How can I help?’”
Now a director of the CAMH Foundation, Sandi has headed many fundraising initiatives, including co-Chairing CAMH’s signature UnMasked event in 2015 and 2017, and acting as a Campaign Adviser for CAMH’s $200-million Breakthrough Campaign, Canada’s largest hospital fundraising campaign for mental health. Her current focus is womenmind, a CAMH initiative that seeks to close the gender gap in mental health and achieve equality in the way that mental health is researched and treated.
“Our focus is education, awareness, reducing stigma, and building a community of support,” Sandi says. “We are getting that message out to show people: here’s the hope.”
A personal connection that sparked a passion
While that special evening at UnMasked was the catalyst that prompted Sandi’s tireless advocacy work, she had long had a personal interest in the area, stemming from her family’s own experiences with mental illness.
Sandi was seven years old when her teenage brother, David, began exhibiting the symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as schizophrenia. It’s a disease that can cause delusions, hallucinations and disorganized thinking. When in the grip of psychosis, David would have violent outbursts, Sandi says, and it wasn’t until later in life that he was able to get the treatment and medication he needed.
“Being exposed to mental health challenges at a very young age with my brother’s illness, I always knew that I was going to do something in the mental health world. But I had been quite discouraged throughout the years because of the lack of change in treatment and the stigma attached to mental health,” she says.
She notes that back in the 1970s when David first began experiencing symptoms of his disease, they weren’t recognized as schizophrenia.
“Our family doctor said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s rebellious. He’s a teenager.’ So that started the trajectory downwards, because the psychosis led to more psychosis, more illness, and so on,” she says. “Now, had this happened today, we would have completely different options available to the person with the illness and for the families. And that is the reason that I advocate daily for changes in people’s attitudes towards mental health and for getting to that wellness stage that we all want for our loved ones.”
The more we talk about mental health, the better we will be able to support people and families living with mental illness, says Sandi, even though it can be uncomfortable to talk about sometimes.
“Let’s break down this mystery, and recognize that the brain is an organ, and sometimes organs get sick,” she says. “The best outcomes happen when we can recognize mental illness as soon as possible and act on it.”
Towards gender balance in mental health
For the past year and a half, Sandi has been a founding member and leading voice of CAMH’s womenmind, a community of philanthropists committed to closing the gender gap in mental health and driving change for women’s mental health and women in science.
Sandi says the initiative came about after a conversation with Deborah Gillis, President and CEO of the CAMH Foundation. “She pulled a couple of the female board members aside after a meeting and said, ‘I’ve asked for some information on women’s mental health and I’ve been digging deep into gender gaps.’ And she laid it out for us.’”
Sandi learned that the challenges facing women in mental health are significant and pressing: women experience depression, anxiety, and trauma to a greater extent than men across different countries and settings. Many treatments used today have been disproportionately tested on men and not equitably studied on women. And women in science face biases as they work to advance their careers.
“During the conversation, a light bulb went off for me. I thought, this is something that we could get our girls involved with. So I talked to my husband, and I said, ‘I’ve got an idea here. Why don’t we give a gift from the Treliving women to women’s mental health?’ And Jim said, ‘That’s the best idea I ever heard in a long time.’”
Sandi spoke to the women in her family, who include her daughter and daughter-in-law, Jim’s daughter and daughter-in-law, as well as six granddaughters and one great-granddaughter. (“The men are scattered in there, but we are heavily weighted on the female side in our family,” Sandi says with a laugh.)
The Treliving women and girls were thrilled to be a part of a project that focused on women and mental health. “My daughter Katie said to me, ‘Mom, I’ve been trying to figure out how to get involved,’ and I just knew we were onto something.”
The family gave a $5-million intergenerational gift to launch womenmind in March 2020. In the first five years, the initiative aims to raise $10 million to recruit new women scientists, provide early career start-up support, hold research and seed grant competitions, offer mentoring programs for women in science, and host an annual global research symposium.
“There’s got to be other families out there that are thinking the same way, and how amazing would it be to have families come and join us in the womenmind community? Sisters, mothers, daughters, come and join us. I think that when we gather together, especially as women, we make change happen.”
womenmind has already achieved several significant milestones, like recruiting Dr. Daisy Singla as the first-ever womenmind Family Scientist specializing in women’s mental health, and launching the first womenmind Seed Funding Competition with awards going to support three women researchers whose fields of study focus on new clinical tools to treat depression, women and nicotine addiction, and safer, more effective use of benzodiazepines by women. It also developed a mentorship program for women scientists to provide training and skill development, and created the inaugural Treliving Family Chair in Women’s Mental Health in conjunction with the University of Toronto. An international search is currently underway for a chair who will lead the development of a research program focused on understanding and improving mental health outcomes for women.
“The goal of womenmind is to support, recognize and celebrate the work of female scientists who are working to improve mental health outcomes for women,” says Sandi. “I am confident the research they are conducting today will make all the difference to the lives of girls and women in the future.”
The focus on women and mental health is something that’s especially needed now, Sandi says. She points to a July 2020 paper released by CAMH called “Mental Health in Canada: COVID-19 and Beyond” that revealed the negative impact of the pandemic on Canadians’ mental health. A poll found that 50 per cent of Canadians reported worsening mental health since the pandemic, stemming from fear and uncertainty about health, employment, finances and social isolation. Women were identified as one of the groups most vulnerable to the mental health impacts of COVID-19.
“Women are the majority of essential workers, they are the caregivers, they could be caring for an elderly parent at the same time that they’re caring for a child at home. And they’re dealing with COVID on top of that,” Sandi says.
As a founding member of womenmind, Sandi points out that there’s yet another goal in what they are doing, which is mentoring the next generation of philanthropists. They are hoping to inspire other women to join the womenmind team to make real change for women and girls in mental health.
“There’s got to be other families out there that are thinking the same way, and how amazing would it be to have families come and join us in the womenmind community? Sisters, mothers, daughters, come and join us. I think that when we gather together, especially as women, we make change happen.” Sandi says it’s been a joy to have her daughters and granddaughters involved in this very special endeavour.
“It bonds us, moving in the same direction with the same focus. I can’t wait to see all of the innovations and discoveries; I can’t wait to watch the scientists as they develop their careers. I’m excited that my youngest granddaughter is six months old, so in 20 years, what will womenmind researchers have accomplished? That’s powerful.”
It’s also been very rewarding from a personal standpoint, Sandi adds.
“I didn’t realize the impact of my brother’s illness on me. I always looked at my father and mother and how challenging it’s been for them, but David’s illness has impacted me tremendously as well,” she says. “Because my brother is ten years older than me, I didn’t really get to know him ever. And I’m sad about that. I’ve heard that he was a great brother, but I never really experienced that relationship with him. So being able to do what I’m doing now is very healing.”