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The human connection

For former TV host Starr Dobson, working to help those with mental illness is all about the people

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Photo: Steve Smith/VisionFire

Photo: Steve Smith/VisionFire

The day Starr Dobson agreed to give the keynote address at the 2013 Special Olympics Gala Dinner and Auction in Halifax changed her life.

“It scared the daylights out of me and I hadn’t been scared in a very long time, and I loved the way it felt,” says Dobson, best known as the former television host and producer of CTV Live at 5.

Dobson was doubly thrilled when the Special Olympics staff called her the following day to say that after hearing her speak, several people had phoned in to volunteer. “I thought, ‘I have to figure out a way to feel like this, and to use the profile CTV allowed me to build, to do something positive,’” she says.

As luck would have it, the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia (MHFNS) was looking for a new president and CEO. “I had met Starr a couple of times,” recalls MHFNS board member, Joyce Carter, president and CEO of the Halifax International Airport Authority. She had felt an instant connection with Dobson, long visible as a public figure and dedicated community volunteer.

“It felt so right,” Carter says. “Starr brings everything to this position: compassion, and her ability to personally connect with people. People like to work with her. She’s quiet, graceful and smart and she knows how to roll up her sleeves.”

In August 2013, after 23 years at CTV, Dobson joined the foundation. “It was time to stop telling other people’s stories and start being a part of one,” she says.

Dobson is passionate about mental health. “One in five Nova Scotians will encounter a mental health concern or addiction each year,” she says. “I say those numbers are far higher. You need to know how to love and support those people in your life.”

A mother of two, Dobson is particularly concerned about youth. “Mental illness typically presents between 16 and 24. That shocked me. It’s such a difficult time for young people… If you are not made aware of the signs and symptoms of mental illness, how do we expect a child to pick up on early indicators and get the help they need?”

Teenage suicide is a related issue. “Suicide is huge,” Dobson says. “I once asked a group of Grade 12 high-school students what was the most important thing they would do if a friend told them they were feeling suicidal, and no one answered me. Then one young man spoke up and said, ‘We don’t know. We’ve never talked about suicide before.’”

Dobson was stunned. “Then I told them, ‘The most important thing you can do is stay with that friend. No one commits suicide when someone’s with them,’” she says. “People are so scared of saying the wrong thing, they don’t say anything at all; the teachers, parents, coaches, [whomever.] We’re human beings first. Just listen. You don’t need to have all the answers.”

Dobson’s compassion for those struggling with being different from the mainstream began in her childhood home in Alma, Pictou County. Her younger sister Stacey has Down syndrome. Dobson’s parents, Neil and Sharon Cunningham, always treated Stacey like their other kids: as though she could do anything she set heart to. With that faith, Stacey is now a Special Olympian, winning 60 medals in swimming competitions.

Dobson and Stacey share a strong bond. “Stacey brightens up a room just by being in it,” Dobson says. “And when I go [home] to Pictou County, I am Stacey Cunningham’s sister. Everyone in the county knows Stacey!”

While her roots still run back to Pictou, Dobson adores Halifax. “I love Halifax,” she says. “The Seaport Market, Alderney Market, Point Pleasant Park, Neptune Theatre, the Dingle, all the restaurants.” Dobson, an avid reader and now a bestselling children’s author, also enjoys get-togethers with friends.”

That group includes long-time friend and former CTV colleague Peter Mallette. “We call that ‘choir practice,’” he laughs. It’s just a group of old friends who regularly like to share meals and celebrate special occasions. Mallette, who also moved from television to the not-for-profit sector, is now the executive director, Atlantic Region, for Prostate Cancer Canada. He thinks Dobson made a good move.

“It’s the spirit of this woman that is the best part of her,” he says. “She is as beautiful on the inside as the outside. She also has a great work ethic. All those years in the pressure-filled, deadline-driven environment that is TV news. As a producer and performer, she did everything. Starr gets it. She just gets it.”

Another former CTV colleague and friend, Janice Landry, also praises Dobson. (Editor’s Note: A freelance writer, Landry has contributed several stories to Halifax Magazine.) “One of the greatest gifts she brings to her position at the foundation is the way she interacts with people,” says Landry. “Starr doesn’t care who or what a person is, their ethnicity or [circumstances], she just treats people fairly. She is an advocate for people in the mental-health arena. Her background as a journalist is so important.”

Founded by Charles Keating in 1987, the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia is a registered charity focused on improving the lives of Nova Scotians affected by mental illness. The foundation is based in the Mount Hope Hospital, which is the largest mental-health facility in the province, located on Pleasant Street in Dartmouth.

“People often confuse the Mental Health Foundation with The Canadian Mental Health Association,” Dobson says. “We are completely different. We don’t provide services, though we speak at schools, if asked. We raise money and give it away to support programs and services, using a granting program.”

The foundation gives out grants quarterly. Recipients so far this year include the community kitchen, Veith House, Family SOS and Kids’ Help Phone. By the end of the year, the foundation expects its grants a to directly affect 30,000 people, and an estimated 150,000 indirectly. “I truly have the best job in the world,” Dobson says. “The only bad part of it is that I don’t have enough money to give away.”

However, she says, the foundation is $100,000 ahead of last year, with a total of $300,000 in funds available for 2015. In its history, the foundation has provided more than $2.6 million in funding to programs and community organizations with a mental-health mandate.

There’s a quotation Dobson tries to live by. “I heard Dr. Stan Kutcher say at a conference, ‘Making the human connection improves the human condition,’” she says. “It gives me goose bumps. So simple. It’s what we’re all forgetting, when it comes to mental health. This could be eye contact. Or just saying hello to someone who doesn’t look like they want you to say hello. Or asking, ‘Are you OK?’ Making human connections…it makes us all better and stronger.”   

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