Friday, December 12, 2008

Mental Health Café

Mental Health café deals with real issues in Fraser Valley communities

Don’t try to tell University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) philosophy instructor Peter Raabe that talk is cheap.

Raabe is a true believer in the power of talking about problems large and small. The North Vancouver resident introduced a Philosophy Café-style open discussion group specifically focused on mental health issues, to that community more than eight years ago. Since then a similar café group has been established in Coquitlam and a one is just taking root in Chilliwack.

The philosophy café, he explains, is an open forum for people directly affected by mental health issues. Raabe is adamant it is not a “typical self-help group” but a positive discussion that helps participants come up with ideas and suggestions about how to cope with mental health concerns and the wellness of a community.

Philosophy cafés give people a chance to discuss mental health issues affecting them and the communities where they live. Raabe says the sessions are open, friendly, and led by trained UFV students who keep the topics on track and topical.

Raabe, who is a philosophical counsellor when not teaching at the university, decided to get the students involved when he realized the concept of mental health cafés was becoming popular and his time to coordinate them was limited. A good facilitator, he says, will lead the discussion, keep it on topic, and ensure it remains respectful even though some sessions can get heated. And that’s where his UFV students come in.

“I wanted to pass on the legacy, so to speak, so I put out a call to the Psychology department for students who might be interested in taking this on.”

Eight students came forward and Raabe drafted a six-week training schedule that taught them the strengths and the exact role of good facilitator. He explains that it is a skill; good facilitators don’t dictate, they ask questions, sometimes act as the devil’s advocate to keep the conservation flowing, keep the discussion on topic, and know how to end it on time. When the UFV students completed the training, they were rewarded with three course credits they could count towards their degree.

“The students are able to apply their philosophical skills in practice. It’s a real shifting of gears for students — we’re putting them into a position of mentor or advisor for adults of many different age groups,” adds Raabe. “The students see some positive opportunities, both for themselves and for the participants, and they are really happy to be doing this.”

Four of those students continue to facilitate the mental health cafés which take place monthly in Coquitlam and now in Chilliwack. Next week, the Chilliwack café takes on the topic of the pharmaceutical industry’s impact on the mental health community.

Scott Campbell, with Chilliwack’s Mood Disorders Group, says the mental health cafés are a great opportunity for all residents of a community to come together to discuss topical issues that generally affect the community as a whole.

Raabe likens the mental health café to a book club. The group meets regularly; topics for the next gathering are generally picked at the end of a session. Anybody can attend, anybody can suggest topics, and all voices are respected and listened to.

“There is no limit to what topics they choose,” he says. “And the important part of the facilitator is to empower the group to pick its own topics. Theses groups have jelled quickly and that might be because they are looking for information and they are looking for skills to deal with mental health issues. They can also look at possible solutions. But with a philosophical discussion there are sometimes three or four solutions. It’s never a simple case of what’s right or wrong.”

The next Chilliwack mental health café takes place Saturday, Dec 13, at 1 p.m. in the Minto Room at Evergreen Hall, at 9291 Corbould Street. It is hosted by the Chilliwack Mood Disorders Group. For more information, people can contact Scott Campbell at 604-793-4906.

The Coquitlam group also meets Saturday, Dec 13 at 1 p.m at the Pinetree Community Centre, 1260 Pinetree Way, Coquitlam. The topic for the December meeting is 'Holidays and Mental Health.' For more information about the Coquitlam group, people can contact Teresa Spurr at

Raabe expects the idea of the mental health philosophy cafés will continue to grow and is hoping other communities start similar groups. When the need arises, he will train more students who take on the role of facilitator.

“I know of nothing else like this in Canada,” adds Raabe. “There is not another café that deals with mental health issues on a continuing basis. Now we have people who are making suggestions and coming up with possible solutions or ideas to deal with mental health issues. That’s what it’s all about.”

UFV offers a minor in Applied Ethical and Political Philosophy as part of the Bachelor of Arts program. Students can also take a variety of philosophy courses for general interest. Applications for September 2009 are currently being accepted. To find out more, visit .