In the late 1950s, a number of visionary Christian people began to dream of providing a service in Christ’s name for people who struggle with serious mental illness and psychiatric issues.
Shalem was originally incorporated as the Salem Christian Sanatorium Inc., and in the mid-1960s it received Ontario provincial cabinet approval, with funding, for a 30-bed psychiatric hospital. Many people gave sacrificially towards this end. The original plan did not materialize, but the dream of serving people in emotional and psychiatric distress did not die. Beginning in the 1970s, after legally changing its name to “Salem Christian Mental Health Association”, Salem opened up numerous Christian counselling clinics across Ontario. In the mid-1980s, these clinics were shut down, with the exception of the clinic in Hamilton. The organization then supported numerous creative, community-driven, faith-based approaches to mental health through technical assistance and small seed grants. Salem also opened a clinic in the Durham region.
Today, with a revised name and a rekindled vision, the Shalem Mental Health Network offers new, community-based ways of reaching out to the very group of people envisioned by the organization’s founders.
Shalem: What’s in a Name?
In 2004, Salem began a process of revisioning, focused on equipping and empowering all of us to meet real emotional and mental health needs. New services, supported by a three-year Strategic Plan and a Board committed to good governance, were piloted, all driven by Gospel values like healing, reconciliation, community for all, restoration, love of one’s neighbour, and peace, in the service of our Redeemer.
Undergirding the “new” Salem was—and continues to be—an ethic of partnership and collaboration with various faith communities and mental health agencies throughout Ontario. Very quickly, remarkable doors opened in both sectors across Ontario. Salem staff found a greater openness to the perspectives of faith in the mental health world than at any time in our history. We viewed that as God’s invitation – even directive – to seize this opportunity.
In the course of this partnership work, the name “Salem” became an issue. For almost all people who have been born and raised in Canada, “Salem” is inextricably linked to the witch-burning episodes that took place in Salem, Massachusetts in early American history. That story is taught in grade schools and has become deeply embedded in popular culture. The association of the word “Salem” to this story is ingrained, visceral and widespread. It came up continually in Salem’s interactions with mental health professionals – people who were eager to be supportive of Salem but who had an immediate and forceful reaction against the name. Of course, the visionary European immigrants who started Salem could not have known of this association. The sad irony is that some of the so-called witches at that time may have had mental illness.
The Gospel values that define what we do are captured beautifully in the word “Salem.” “Salem” is a rich biblical word which means wholeness, restoration and peace. It forms the end of the word “Jerusalem,” which means “City of Peace”. When the Bible says “Love God with your whole heart,” the word “whole” is “salem.”
The Salem Board engaged in an extensive search for a new name that would express the same life-giving values but would not generate the widespread visceral association to the Salem witch-trials and burnings. To that end, the Board and Membership decided to reclaim the word “Salem” by returning to the original biblical Hebrew word “Shalem” (pronounced shaLAIM). “Salem” is the Anglicized version of “Shalem.” “Shalem” affirms, honours and recaptures the beautiful vision of what God intends for God’s people and of the original founders of Salem. At the same time, it altogether bypasses the popular culture association with witch-burning. It affirms continuity while also positioning us to meet new challenges by means of engagement with others.
At its Membership Meeting on February 19, 2009, the members unanimously adopted the resolution to change the legal name of the organization to Shalem Mental Health Network. A Supplementary Letters Patent reflecting the new name was approved on February 24, 2009 by Ontario’s Ministry of Government Services.