We caught up with 2024’s Old Boy of Distinction Dr. Peter Szatmari ’70 and John D. Stevenson Award recipient Carita Sheehy.
Dr. Peter Szatmari ’70
Szatmari is a child and youth psychiatrist, and an internationally renowned expert in autism and child and youth mental health. He earned his medical degree at McMaster University and spent three decades on the faculty there in various positions, including head of the Offord Centre for Child Studies and head of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences. Under his guidance, McMaster developed Canada’s first autism clinic for children.
In 2013, Szatmari relocated to Toronto where he held the Patsy and Jamie Anderson [Class of 1972] Chair in Child and Youth Mental Health and was chief of the Child and Youth Mental Health Collaborative at CAMH, the University of Toronto and SickKids. He is currently the director of the Cundill Centre for Child and Youth Depression at CAMH.
What drew you to medicine and psychiatry?
It’s something I always wanted to do. I planned my education around it, both in high school and university. My father was also a psychiatrist and I think I already knew that I wanted to follow that path even at the beginning of high school.
My favourite subject at UCC was English. I loved the fiction we were assigned and it got me interested in people, their personalities and how they interact. I loved reading about people’s personal problems and crises in the books we were assigned. I even loved memorizing poetry; I can still recite some lines from Shakespeare from Grade 11. From all these learning experiences, I think I learned about empathy.
Reading fiction had a big impact on me. There’s a skill to reading fiction and I want to give credit to my great English teachers who made sure we were taught properly to read.
An interest in people is also evident in my involvement in Little Theatre at UCC [now the Manucha & Bellamy Studio Theatre]. You really have to get into someone’s character and develop empathy when you play a role. I also loved the camaraderie of being on a team, which was another impetus toward a career of helping people.
How did you get involved in researching and treating autism?
I got interested in autism with my first faculty job at McMaster. It was luck to some extent; nobody else was doing it and it needed to be done, so I stepped forward.
In the 1980s, autism was considered a rare disorder, treated mostly by pediatricians. It was rare for a psychiatrist to get involved, but I always liked to do things nobody else liked to do. I could see the necessity and importance and there was a lot of potential. This was a neglected group of kids that wasn’t getting the attention they deserved.
Can you tell us about the longitudinal study of autism you’re leading?
This pan-Canadian study, the Pathways in Autism Spectrum Disorder study, is the largest in the world. It has been going since 2000 with centres in Halifax, Montreal, Hamilton, Edmonton and Vancouver. We have watched youth with autism grow from toddlerhood through their teens, now to their early 20s. The study has contributed quite a bit to what we know about how kids with autism grow up in Canada.
The study also relates to another thing I learned at UCC: teamwork. It’s hard to keep a research team together for 20 years, but we’ve managed to do it. We’re not born with teamwork skills, but I learned them at UCC through theatre, sports and classes and they have been really important to me to carry forward into my career.
What’s a fond memory from your UCC years?
I have, of course, many fond memories. Our class was the first to do the Arts Festival in the spring and it was entirely student-led. We were encouraged to take charge and it was a surprising success. It was an early experience in leadership.
You’ve received many awards. Why is this one important?
As someone who works in the field of child and adolescent mental health, I call upon my experiences in school a great deal in my professional life. What I learned and experienced at UCC are memories and learnings that are very vivid for me.
Also, the friends I made there are still my closest friends. Our class is still very engaged and we get together on a regular basis, even after 50 years since graduation. We go back a long time.
UCC emphasizes service, and you’ve devoted your whole career to it.
Service is a part of the effort to ensure social justice for all, which is one of my priorities. We’re levelling the playing field for kids, as my mentor put it. To bring child and youth mental health out of the shadows and make it front and centre, as it is now if you listen to the news media, has been the most rewarding thing in my career. Prior to 2000, we never discussed child mental health. And to the extent that I’ve played a small role in reducing stigma and making mental health a conversational topic we can discuss, it is most gratifying.
Sheehy left a banking career behind to raise three boys, Ryan ’15, Cameron ’17 and Matthew ’20. Once her sons entered UCC, Sheehy became an active volunteer who undertook numerous portfolio and hands-on roles at both the Prep and Upper School, including treasurer of the Parents’ Organization, co-president of the Parents’ Organization and co-chair of the Blues Booster Club. Currently, she is vice-president of parents for UCC’s Association Council, chairing the Governance Committee.
Why did you get involved at UCC?
It was very fulfilling and allowed me to be actively involved in my boys’ lives. Helping out at school was very rewarding and provided me with the opportunity to give back to a community that was so important to me. Jumping in with both feet, and saying, “Yes, I can do it” when asked, made me feel like a contributing and important part of the school, and it also gave me a chance to see my boys during the school day, although perhaps they didn’t love that as much as I did!
What were some of your most rewarding experiences as a long-serving UCC volunteer?
There were so many! It was wonderful to participate in both the parents’ organizations and to be part of what was going on at the school generally. I thoroughly enjoyed all my roles with the Prep Parents’ Organization (PPO) and the Parents’ Organization (PO), but the Blues Booster Club held a special place in my heart, especially since all three of my boys were actively involved in various sports programs. Participating in the celebration of UCC's school spirit during assemblies and on the sidelines was truly enjoyable and exciting. In addition, working in The Used Blues Shop (TUBS) was rewarding in a different way altogether. It allowed me to deal with students one-on-one and directly help them, which was great. Through it all, I want to highlight the friendships I cultivated by engaging with like-minded individuals at UCC. The alumni mom network remains vibrant and thriving.
Why is volunteering so important?
There are different angles to philanthropy. Giving personal time is valuable and improves the community that is receiving that time. To me, it is important to “give back” to any community in which you live, and the best way to pass along that message to my sons was by doing, and by action. I took every chance I could to get them involved with me, whether it be to carry cases of Gatorade to the arena, setting up tables at an event or simply doing tasks at a committee meeting as they waited for me after school.
There is also real personal growth and development gained by volunteering, especially at a place like UCC. Sitting around the table with talented and interesting people keeps you familiar in terms of business protocols and technology. I learned transferable skills such as fundraising methods, event co-ordination and meeting leadership, which have proven invaluable in various aspects of my life.
Are you pleased to be named the recipient of this award?
I’m beyond honoured. Reflecting back, I truly enjoyed my time serving the UCC community. It was a significant part of my life and very time consuming. So, to see that my efforts were recognized by this community means so much to me.