Shirley Brown’s Story

“A Chair in the Making” inspires many to make a difference for women with mental illness

The Shirley Brown Chair in Women’s Mental Health Research bears the name of an exceptional woman, lawyer and volunteer who was passionate about healthcare reform, but Janet MacInnis says the chair stands for even more than the person who inspired it.

“It’s an example of the incredible power of our community – the hundreds of donors who came together to raise awareness about women’s mental health and the research we need to do to move ahead.”

MacInnis, a long-time WCH volunteer, helped to spearhead fundraising for the endowment after Shirley Brown’s death following an episode of acute depression in 1996.

“Shirley’s story was incredibly galvanizing,” remembers her sister Janet Brown. More than 700 family members and friends, including Shirley’s partner Kath Farris, rallied behind the movement to change the model of care for mental illness through innovative research.

The Shirley Brown Chair was established in 1996 as a collaboration among WCH, the University of Toronto and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. The current chair holder, Women’s College Research Institute scientist Cindy-Lee Dennis, PhD, is identifying and preventing postpartum depression and developing innovative, accessible treatment interventions.
Her latest study into the effectiveness of telephone-based interpersonal psychotherapy for women with postpartum depression is addressing the gaps in care for new mothers who live in rural and remote areas. “If the telephone format is implemented,” she explains, “all women could receive treatment.”

This is exciting news for Janet Brown, who says WCH’s “strengths in applying research knowledge in interesting ways” is exactly why her family chose the hospital for their gifts.

“We want the chair to make a difference – to Women’s College Hospital and to the way society perceives diseases like depression. Most of all, we really want to make a difference for women with mental illness.”

A Chair in the Making

A Chair in the Making  was just one of the many Women’s College Hospital Foundation fundraisers led by family and friends in memory of Shirley Brown. More than 100 chairs were donated, painted by community members of all ages and then sold at a 1999 auction led by former Ontario premier Bob Rae. 

A Chair in the Making 
 was “born out of love and hope,” says the event brochure. “Love for Shirley and for others who have suffered from mental illness. Hope that what she and they have suffered will one day be understood so that others will not have to endure the pain and the stigma of a disease of the mind.” The event raised more than $115,000 for the Shirley Brown Chair in Women’s Mental Health Research.

Here are the voices of some of the people involved explaining why they participated and what they hoped would result:

“My sister describes depression as a humongous black hole. All my life I have seen her and others I love fall into that black hole and watched helplessly as they fought their way out. I want to be part of an effort to remove the inevitability of slipping into the hole, both for my generation and those who follow.”
– Barb

“Many women have experienced low self-esteem and possess limited knowledge of the demanding roles it can impose on us. We need help to break out of the holds made by gender inequality, poverty and low self-esteem, and find strength to become our own works of freedom and imagination. Let’s help each other.”
– Deirdre

“Women, anger, depression, suicide, hope, renewal. Working toward a common goal with women is always satisfying and to do it in a creative way even more so. It felt like such a positive action to take. I hope our combined efforts lead to a greater understanding of the way women function in our society.”
– Kathleen

“I hope, there will be a greater understanding of this disease. Maybe this Research Chair will lead us through the darkness to the light for which we are all striving.”
– Molly

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