Graham Boeckh Foundation


A Holistic Approach for Youth Mental Health

When it comes to serving the needs of youth with mental illness, Canada is falling short. In Canada, more than 70 per cent of people with a mental health problem or illness are struck when they are young – in adolescence and early adulthood. According to James Hughes, president of the Graham Boeckh Foundation (GBF), this is also the age group where there is the least amount of support available.

The Graham Boeckh Foundation, based in Montreal, decided in 2011 to focus on bringing about a systemic change in the mental health sector. Believing that early intervention is the key, the GBF launched a funding partnership with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to create the Transformational Research in Adolescent Mental Health (TRAM) initiative in 2012.

“If we don’t intervene early then it’s a lifetime of a person struggling with this problem,” said Hughes. “It affects them profoundly, as well as their families and their communities.”

With a contribution of $12.5 million over five years from each partner, the CIHR and the GBF have created a fund that will finance a national network in youth mental health. The purpose of TRAM is to set a new standard for intervention with any young person who has early onset mental illness. The network will ensure that all steps are available to any young person in Canada who needs them, regardless of what type of mental health problem or illness they are suffering with.

“There is an equity issue here,” says Hughes. “Every kid should get the kind of support they need. People who have resources and know people who work in the system have a better chance than those who don’t have the same networks or literacy or motivation that is sometimes necessary to get the right level of care”.


TRAM is unique in that it does not require research proposals as in the traditional approach. Instead, it has developed a three- part process.

In the first part, individuals and organizations came together from five different areas – research, service delivery, government, patients, and the non-profit community – to form 55 networks. Each of these networks submitted an expression of interest. Seventeen networks were shortlisted on the basis of their expression of interest and were brought together for a strengthening workshop.

Since many people did not know each other outside of their specific area, the foundation wanted to break down those barriers. The various groups shared their ideas and theories of change. Hughes likens it to a kind of marketplace, with everyone exchanging different ideas and identifying connections with the goal of strengthening the original ideas.

TRAM is currently in the second stage of the process. The original groups have merged into four. They have submitted letters of intent to a review panel composed of internationally known members from each of the five areas mentioned earlier.

In the final stage, the panel will determine which groups will be granted $25,000 to prepare a final proposal.

“This will be a significant piece of work to design exactly what the intervention steps are – to identify, to screen, to refer, to treat, to support, depending on what people are facing,” said Hughes. “Then to spread it out across the country.”

In early Spring 2014, a final network will be selected that will apply the $25 million fund to implement their intervention initiative.


The GBF has learned a number of lessons through their unique partnership with CIHR. Hughes acknowledges that the foundation was nervous about entering a relationship with a much larger organization. CIHR is normally focused on research, so taking on a system change mandate was not typical for them. What the GBF has found, in fact is that the CIHR is an excellent partner, flexible, adaptive and innovative. Through TRAM the partners were able to develop an approach, break down barriers and work through the research methodology together.

The foundation also discovered that the desire for change exists outside the mental health sector. “We learned that there are partners out there who want to see things change,” Hughes said. “It’s not exclusive to us.”


The foundation believes that it is important to provide intellectual resources as well as financial support. For Hughes, the intellectual and social capital that a philanthropic organization can bring to the table is as important as the financial contribution it provides and it shouldn’t be underrated.

“The Boeckh family is amazing and totally invested in the cause,” Hughes says. “The family involvement brings an authenticity that I don’t think would have been there if it was simply a research project funded by a research institution. This is a big project, we want it to work and we want to put our hands on it.”

The foundation is determined to make meaningful change for youth with mental illness. With TRAM and strong partnerships, the future is starting to look brighter for young people and their families.


Q&A with James Hughes – President of the Graham Boeckh Foundation

How did you become involved in the foundation?

I started as President in April 2012. My first project was TRAM. I hadn’t worked in a foundation before but had worked in government and the non-profit sector. I had the right tools in terms of leadership and knowing how to deal with institutions, how to bring people together, and how to get things done.

What kinds of lessons have you learned since being involved with the Graham Boeckh Foundation?

In philanthropy money is not everything. Granting is not as effective as project and program partnering – to find other philanthropic, private and government organizations to work with on a common cause. Also, philanthropy can lead. We can take risks that many other institutions cannot.

What milestone do you still want the foundation to meet?

The biggest milestone of all will be to start to see the numbers change. In time, seeing access numbers improve, quality numbers improve and outcomes improve. That’s the holy grail.

The Graham Boeckh Foundation (GBF) is a Montreal-based family foundation which aims to improve mental health care in Canada by strategically leading and funding projects in basic research, research translation and community outreach. The Graham Boeckh Foundation is a member of Philanthropic Foundations Canada (PFC).