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    A career in caring

    Mike Condra was a psychologist at Kingston General Hospital (KGH) in the 1980s when someone asked his then-young son what his dad did for a living. Eoghan replied simply: “My dad talks to sad people and makes them happy.”

    Mike Condra arrived at Queen’s University  in 1992 to become the director of Health, Counselling and Disability Services (HCDS) and, during that time, has focused on mental health education and awareness. (University Communications)

    Dr. Condra still likes this description of his work (although he is quick to say that he doesn’t mean for it to sound “trite” or overly simplistic). In essence, it’s what the soft-spoken Irishman has done for the past two-plus decades at Queen’s, working in Health, Counselling and Disability Services (HCDS) after leaving KGH, and taking the helm as HCDS director in 1992.  He’s listened, offered gentle advice, been a friend to thousands, and spearheaded mental health initiatives across campus. When he retires in June, he leaves a mountain of accomplishments and a community he’s held close to his heart – a community he’s helped to shape, heal and grow.

    A special Retirement Reception in honour of Dr. Michael Condra will be held Wednesday, June 17, 4-6 pm, at the University Club. Queen's community members are invited to celebrate the many contributions Dr. Condra has made throughout his career.

    “I got the job in counselling at Queen’s in 1992, and taking it was the best decision I’ve ever made,” says Dr. Condra. “It’s been a wonderful work environment for me. I’ve always felt supported in what we do in HCDS.”

    In 1973, Dr. Condra had just wrapped up a bachelor’s degree in psychology when he and his wife, Eleanor, decided to immigrate to Canada from Ireland. He had thoughts of “maybe going to school” again, and maybe “staying in Canada for two or three years” before returning home. But shortly after arriving, Dr. Condra landed the job at KGH as a psychometrist, working with psychologists to administer psychological tests. It turned out to be a great introduction to Canada’s health-care system.

    A couple of years later, he started his PhD at Queen’s. At the same time, Eleanor began studies, first at St. Lawrence College, then at the university – she is a three-time Queen’s grad, holding a BA in sociology as well as undergraduate and graduate degrees in education. They had children – two boys, one girl. They settled down, rooting in Kingston in family and work.

    “We went back to Ireland six years after coming to Canada, and it seemed, to us, things there had moved on. So had we.”

    •    •    •

    It’s hard to imagine HCDS or Queen’s without Mike Condra. Mike has been a fixture at Queen’s for decades and for me epitomizes the highest standards of university service. We will miss his quiet wisdom and compassion. I’m especially grateful for all the work he has done in student mental health issues over the past five years.
    — Daniel Woolf, Principal

    As director at HCDS for over 20 years, Mike has proven himself selfless, caring, honest and kind. His immediate response to a call for assistance at any time of day or night has always ensured individuals in need receive excellent care. Mike is a leader in the field of mental health education, and Queen’s has been most fortunate to have him as a member of its community. It is hard for those of us who work in student services to imagine how we will manage without Mike to guide us through many difficult situations. His is truly wise and compassionate counsel.
    — Ann Tierney, Vice-Provost and Dean of Student Affairs

    Mike Condra has been a tireless advocate and supporter of student health and wellness at Queen’s and it will be very difficult to replace him. As a mentor to me and so many others, I am most struck by the care he demonstrates for each individual he works with. I remember being in charge of Orientation Week and coming to Dr. Condra’s office for the first time with a vision for a new event to help address mental health. He took the time to help bring my vision to life, and the next year, he and I were the two speakers at the event’s second-ever occurrence. I will forever cherish that memory and my interactions with this incredibly special man.
    — Mike Young, Rector

    Move on, he did. His years at Queen’s have been busy, and the last decade especially demanding. Mental health education and awareness, he says, has been the focus of his work over this time. Across the continent, postsecondary institutions have become increasingly aware of the importance of mental health concerns among students. Queen’s is no exception, but the university hit its hardest point in 2010 when Jack Windeler died by suicide. Several more student deaths followed.

    “That shifted everything. It was a really difficult time for all of us at Queen’s. Suicides and suicide attempts are always terribly sad,” he says. “When we are mentally well and we have to deal with a crisis we can problem-solve, think of possible solutions. When a person’s mental health is compromised, problems that they could deal with confidently become overwhelming and seem insurmountable. This is when the risk of suicide can increase.”

    At Queen’s, there has always been concern for students’ wellbeing and mental health, Dr. Condra says, but the deaths in 2010 and 2011 spurred new thinking, and many programs and initiatives blossomed. Principal Daniel Woolf put together the Principal’s Commission on Mental Health, generating a plan and guidelines for the university to follow in order to address the changing needs of its students.

    “Daniel has done a phenomenal job of leadership in the area of mental health. There is a lot of support for the work we do from the principal’s office and all of the senior administration. The principal has worked to ensure that our efforts in HCDS and in mental health education are supported.”

    In particular, Dr. Condra is proud of two workshops offered on a regular basis through HCDS: the one-hour Identifying and Responding to Students in Distress and the three-hour Mental Health: Awareness. Anti-Stigma. Response. He’s also very happy with the two-day Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), but says it’s not always easy for people on campus to devote two full days to the workshop. The other two programs, developed fully by Queen’s (MHFA is a nationwide program provided under the auspices of the Mental Health Commission of Canada), get quickly to the heart of the matter with relevant  information on the experience of mental health and stigma, and offer concrete strategies to help a person who is experiencing a mental health problem.

    “It is not difficult to support someone who is dealing with a mental health problem. I’ve found that people really want to help,” he says. “But often they are scared. They don’t want to do the wrong thing. Participants tell us repeatedly that these programs give them reassurance and confidence in helping a person with a mental health problem.”

    Dr. Condra, who was given a Queen’s Distinguished Service Award in 2014, is also celebrating the beginning of a new peer-mentoring program on campus for students with mental health problems. M² matches students who have a mental health problem with upper-year trained student mentors who provide personal support and suggest learning and coping strategies through weekly meetings. The findings from the evaluation process will be used to produce a program design and comprehensive resource manual that will be shared with colleges and universities across Ontario, and will also be incorporated into the peer-mentoring program offered through HCDS.

    “It has been a wonderful experience. Queen’s has a well-established culture of leadership-development and peer programming. In this context, M² was a natural fit,” says Dr. Condra.  “Our students are enthusiastic, generous and very dedicated. M² advertised for 18 mentors and we received 135 applications. The wisdom and support of an upper-year peer can be very powerful in helping a student who is experiencing a mental health problem. Peer mentors have a lot of credibility.”

    •    •    •

    Dr. Condra grew up in a big family in Limerick, the sixth of seven children. In part, he says, his desire to be a psychologist grew out of his relationships with his siblings, with his younger brother especially.

    His brother was born with a congenital dislocated hip, and while his older siblings did the “hard work” of caring for him in a more practical way, Dr. Condra set about making his brother smile.

    “I could cheer him up, with jokes, a funny accent. I am certainly not a standup comic, and again, I don’t mean to trivialize, but I was just his friend.  It seemed to make a difference to him and it certainly made us very close.”

    At Queen’s, Dr. Condra has countless stories of community members wanting to help others. He remembers an associate dean contacting him because a student, terrified, had come to her because she didn’t have enough money to buy much-needed pain medication.

    “The dean didn’t have to call me,” he says. “But she wanted to help this student and didn’t know the best route, so we worked it out together. Like many of us in HCDS, I’ve had professors contact me to ask for advice on how to help a student. They are not looking for details about the student and are very respectful of the need for confidentiality. They just want to ensure that they know how to help students. They don’t have to do that, but they get extra marks in my books for taking the time. There is a tremendous amount of kindness and compassion on this campus.”

    Asked how he deals with stress and being continuously confronted by other people’s struggles, Dr. Condra takes it back to family, both in Ireland and here, with his wife and three children. During his childhood, the family always sat down together for meals, and that’s important, he says, for developing close bonds.

    “Loving, trusting relationships are really important. I’m in a relationship with someone I love, and I have three wonderful children. I have a great home life. Work is important to me, but it is not the only thing.”

    •    •    •

    At the time of writing this article, Dr. Condra had 10 weeks left at Queen’s before leaving for retirement in June.

    “Ten weeks left, and four months of work still to do,” he says, laughing. “The upside of working at a university like Queen’s is that there are lots of exciting things to do. The downside: there are lots of exciting things to do.”

    It’s understandable, then, given his busyness in past years, that he is not certain of what retirement will hold for him. “To be honest, I’m not sure. I’ll spend time outdoors, working on our property, an old barn. We’ll travel (his kids live in Edmonton, Lima and London, England). And I’ll probably do some consulting, particularly in the area of risk assessment.”

    What’s certain, though, is the great bank of memories he’ll take with him. “It’s been a privilege working with the students, and faculty and staff. I’ve met many people whom I feel I’ve been privileged to get to know. I’m a very fortunate person.”