MICRO-LOANS UNLOCK TRAP OF MENTAL ILLNESS.

Toronto Star By Carole Goar

Editorial Board

January 10 2012

Some of the most creative people in Canada have psychiatric disorders. They long to support themselves, but don’t function well in a corporate environment. They dream of running their own business, but can’t get start-up funding.

So they remain trapped, their talents underdeveloped and their aspirations out of reach.

What if someone believed in them, invested in them and gave them a chance to become contributing members of society?

We now know the answer, thanks to a groundbreaking experiment by the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

Three years ago they launched a pilot project to see if microcredit could make a difference. The clients received a small loan or line credit at a below-market rate. Rotman provided coaching and mentors. CAMH offered mental health support. The seed money ($1 million) came from philanthropist Sandra Rotman.

The exploratory phase just ended. Three of the 11 clients in the program have already paid off their five-year loans. The other eight are all making regular monthly payments.

Their businesses vary from craft shops to e-commerce networks. One now has bank financing. One was featured in Flare magazine. Two have received entrepreneurial achievement awards.

The support begins the moment applicants get in touch. “We work with them through the approval process and find a Rotman alumnus who can act as a mentor,” says Narinder Dhami, executive director of Rise Asset Development. “And we make sure their (Ontario Disability Support) caseworker knows they have a business income.”

The project team allows clients to postpone payments when health problems flare up. One board member is working with Toronto Community Housing to ensure clients don’t lose their apartments before they’re ready to live independently. Osgoode Hall Law School is offering pro bono legal assistance to help the fledgling entrepreneurs set up their businesses properly.

Brian Golden, chair of the board and professor in health sector strategy at the Rotman School, acknowledges he’s still learning about mental illness. “The CAMH people train us while they support the clients.”

The short-term goal of Rise is to offer individuals marginalized by mental illness an outlet for their talent and an occupation that will give meaning to their lives. The longer-term objective is to evolve from a purely philanthropic organization to a social enterprise that will pay for itself and provide investors with a financial return.

Having proved that people with mental health challenges can run viable businesses, Rise now hopes to expand its program across the province. Golden envisages 200 to 300 clients.

That will require more than a $1 million grant, of course. But would-be contributors are already stepping forward. The Canadian arm of Citibank is providing funding. The MaRS centre, which incubates innovative businesses, is providing support. Corporate CEOs who hear about the initiative are interested.

Golden and Dhami are meeting provincial officials this week seeking government support. Ontario would be one of the biggest beneficiaries if the program lifted a steady stream of people with mental health challenges off the ODSP rolls, Golden points out.

There is still enough cash in the bank to expand modestly. The organization’s top priority, right now, is to get word out that Rise exists and it’s open for business. “We want to be top of mind when people living with mental health challenges have a dream,” Golden says.

One barrier refuses to fall. Not one of the program’s clients — even those who are now self-supporting — will disclose that he or she has a mental illness. The stigma is still too powerful, the risks are too high.

That will change, Dhami predicts. But it will take time and courage.