As the new chief executive of the Wellesley Institute, Kwame McKenzie wants to make Toronto’s streets healthier and more nurturing.The medical director of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health patches up the wounded and then sends them back out — while not to a war zone — to the increasingly mean streets of Toronto.McKenzie wants to make those streets healthier and more nurturing, and on Monday he started a new job aimed at doing just that. He has become CEO of the progressive health policy think-tank, the Wellesley Institute, a position he will hold while continuing his work at CAMH.“If we could put ourselves out of business (at CAMH), that would be great,” says McKenzie, who hopes that at the Wellesley Institute he can help decrease the stressors that drive people into the ER of CAMH.
He sees a direct connection between patients who come into the ER and the growing inequality in Toronto. The stress of trying to eke out a living can lead to anxiety and depression, and can even trigger conditions like schizophrenia in those who are predisposed. “Stress gets under the skin,” said McKenzie, adding it also contributes to physical health problems by affecting, for example, immunity and hormone levels. It can result in emotional eating, which can lead to weight problems, high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. It can even contribute to cancer.
The ER casualties he sees include parents trying to support families by holding down two jobs and spending many hours a day commuting. They suffer from mortgage stress and their children don’t get enough attention. He sees teens and young adults succumbing to stress at school where there is fierce competition among graduates for too few jobs. Meanwhile, student debt is higher than ever. “More and more, people are feeling frustrated and alienated from Toronto,” said McKenzie, adding the economic downturn has made the disparities between rich and poor even more distinct. The Wellesley Institute tries to advance population health and reduce health inequities by affecting what are known as the social determinants of health. They include income, employment, education, social and physical environments, coping skills and child development.
“Everyone understands prevention is better than a cure, but they don’t act on it,” said McKenzie, who would like to see Toronto’s mayoral candidates focus more on these issues, in addition to “the number of subway stops.”
McKenzie has worked at CAMH since 2007. He studied medicine at the University of Southampton, England, and undertook psychiatric training at the Institute of Psychiatry at Maudsley, London, and Harvard University. In addition to his roles at CAMH and the Wellesley Institute, McKenzie has a third job. The 50-year-old father of two grown children is director of equity, gender and population health at the University of Toronto. Asked how many hours he works, he said: “I work more hours than I will declare because it’s not sane.” Still, McKenzie said he maintains a balanced life with time for exercise, the cinema and “low stress” weekends at his farm near Lindsay, with his wife, Dr. Natasha Crowcroft, chief of infectious diseases at Public Health Ontario. He doesn’t mind all the hours, he said, “because I love my work.”