Out of darkness comes inspiration at Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health Virtual Inspiration Awards

Five members of Ottawa community honoured for tackling mental health stigma, raising awareness, scientific research
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What a difference a year makes. While the 2021 Virtual Inspiration Awards held Thursday night in the downtown Delta Hotel was a much smaller event than last year’s grand and splendid affair, it was certainly no less special.

The Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health honoured Carleton University president Benoit-Antoine Bacon, Michael Dixon, Charlotte Smith and Samantha Nadon for work they’re doing in the community to tackle mental health stigma and to raise awareness. Clinical neuroscience researcher Jennifer Phillips received the Young Researcher Inspiration Award for her ongoing studies on depression and suicide prevention.

A net total of more than $415,000 was raised for patient care and mental health research at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre.

The evening was hosted by Canadian television personality Rick Campanelli, former co-host of Entertainment Tonight Canada and a fan-favourite MuchMusic VJ from back in the '90s, when he just couldn’t resist the frosted-tips hair trend.

“Yes, I’ll never be able to live that one down,” he joked as he kicked off the one-hour, live-stream event held on the hotel's top floor overlooking the city.

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Canadian television personality Rick Campanelli hosted the 18th annual Inspiration Awards, which was live streamed from the Delta Hotel on Thursday, March 4, 2021. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Many of the business sponsors, including Tara-Lynn Hughes, senior vice-president of returning presenting sponsor TD Bank, spoke via pre-recorded messages.

"Support for mental health is needed now more than ever, and the work being done to recognize and celebrate people committed to breaking down the stigma around it is so important," she said.

Inspiration Awards committee chair Jane Duchscher was there to express her gratitude and pride toward this year's group of award recipients, describing them as “ordinary people who have done extraordinary things” in the area of mental health. She also sits on the board of the Royal Ottawa Foundation.

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The Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health's Virtual Inspiration Awards committee chair Jane Duchscher at this year's event, held at the Delta Hotel on Thursday, March 4, 2021. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Organizers capped the number of people in the venue at 25. It was a tiny crowd compared to the nearly 600 people who attended last year’s black-tie awards gala. The 2020 event took place only a week before large parts of the country started to shut down due to the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus.

Ottawa special event production company Event Design brought a welcomed sense of normalcy to the evening as it returned to run things in its usual calm and professional way. Angela Spicer, the company's director of corporate events, politely asked everyone to be quiet during the show. It was like being behind the scenes during a live studio taping.

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Angela Spicer, director of corporate events at Event Design, with her daughter, Caroline Spicer, corporate event specialist at Event Design, at the Delta Hotel for The Royal Ottawa Foundation's 2021 Virtual Inspiration Awards. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Each award recipient was allowed to bring a guest, with whom they sat at their own small table off to the side with drinks and charcuterie. Everyone wore face masks except for when recipients sat down for a brief "fireside chat" with Campanelli in front of the cameras.

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Community Inspiration Award recipient Michael Dixon in conversation with host Rick Campanelli at the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health's 2021 Virtual Inspiration Awards Gala, held at the Delta Hotel on Thursday, March 4, 2021. Photo by Caroline Phillips
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Jennifer Phillips, associate scientist in the Mood Disorders Research Unit at The Royal’s Institute of Mental Health Research, affiliated with the University of Ottawa, received the Young Research Inspiration Award during a virtual event that was live streamed from the Delta Hotel. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Bacon, who also has his PhD in neuropsychology, was this year’s winner of the Transformational Leader Inspiration Award for his willingness to speak publicly about how he was able to turn his life around.

“To me, it was important to have open honest conversations about mental health and substance use because I know in our community of 40,000 a lot of people are struggling,” said Bacon, referring to the faculty, staff and students at Carleton University.

“I’m always hoping that when they hear me speak they realize that they’re not alone; you don’t have to suffer alone. They deserve help – everybody deserve help – because healing is possible.”

He also said that Carleton University, and the inclusive nature of the institution, has helped him to share his story.

Dixon, a veteran of the funeral services industry, received the Community Inspiration Award for starting the country’s first peer-support groups for funeral directors and staff to cope with occupational hazards of the job. It was shocking to hear how he wanted to end his life five years ago but convinced himself to first call his doctor. He intended to go through with his irreversible plan if nobody answered the phone. He committed to getting himself help if somebody did. Phew, a nurse picked up.

Smith, a master’s student in sociology at Carleton University, was the recipient of a Personal Inspiration Award. She’s been doing fantastic things to address youth homelessness and support at-risk young people, drawing on her former experience of living on the streets and of “being in ‘survival mode’ all the time.”

The award is motivating, she said.

“I know I have eyes on me and I don’t want to let people down. I have to keep working and to try harder and do whatever I can to help.”

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Personal Inspiration Award recipient Charlotte Smith in conversation with host Rick Campanelli at the 2021 Virtual Inspiration Awards. Photo by Caroline Phillips
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Samantha Nadon, Inspiration Award recipient in the youth category in a live fireside chat during the 2021 Virtual Inspiration Awards. Photo by Caroline Phillips
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Kayla Robins, 13, delivered a spoken word poem during the 2021 Virtual Inspiration Awards held Thursday, March 4, 2021, at the Delta Hotel. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Nadon received this year’s Inspiration Award in the youth category for the positive impact she’s had on her peers at the Youville Centre, which helps young moms and their children, while Phillips described her research award as a team effort.

“Nobody does research by themselves,” she said. “This award really represents everyone that I’ve worked with throughout my career and that I’m still working with.”

The evening ended on an exciting note with the announcement of the winning number of The Royal’s 50/50 worth $16,625, sponsored by TechInsights. The Inspiration Award sponsors were: CN, represented by Alex Lanthier; Canada Life, represented by Caroline Workman; Kott, represented by Melissa Kruyne; Minto, represented by Brent Strachan; and Modern Niagara, represented by Erin Oliver.

Black & McDonald sponsored the youth video contest.

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Carleton University president Benoit-Antoine Bacon was this year's Transformational Leader award recipient at the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health's 2021 Virtual Inspiration Awards, held at the Delta Hotel on Thursday, March 4, 2021. Photo by Caroline Phillips
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Michael Dixon was this year's Community Inspiration Award recipient at the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health's 2021 Virtual Inspiration Awards, held at the Delta Hotel on Thursday, March 4, 2021. Photo by Caroline Phillips
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Jennifer Phillips, who has her PhD in neuroscience, was this year's Young Researcher Inspiration Award winner at the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health's 2021 Virtual Inspiration Awards, held at the Delta Hotel on Thursday, March 4, 2021. Photo by Caroline Phillips
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Personal Inspiration Award recipient Charlotte Smith at the 2021 Virtual Inspiration Awards hosted by the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health on Thursday, March 4, 2021. Photo by Caroline Phillips
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Samantha Nadon, Inspiration Award recipient in the youth category, at the 2021 Virtual Inspiration Awards hosted by the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health on Thursday, March 4, 2021. Photo by Caroline Phillips

— caroline@obj.ca