Ann Dowsett Johnston

Public Policy, Mental Health, Trauma and Addictions Expert

Ann Dowsett Johnston is an award-winning journalist and keynote speaker. She is one of Canada’s leading experts on public policy related to higher education, alcohol addiction and trauma. For 14 years, she oversaw two bestselling projects: the Maclean’s university rankings and the Maclean’s Guide to Canadian Universities. Most recently, Dowsett Johnston spent a year researching the issue of Women and Alcohol as part of the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy. Beyond her focus on education and addiction, Dowsett Johnston has written on a wide variety of subjects, from the arts to mental health.

Dowsett Johnston’s is the author of the best selling book Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol. Her personal writing was anthologized in the bestselling Dropped Threads: More of What We Aren’t Told. As a result of her expertise, Ann Dawsett Johnston became the CEO of the Pine River Foundation. Pine River Foundation is an organization that champions and supports Pine River Institute (PRI), a residential treatment program for youth 13-19 struggling with addictive behaviours and often co-occurring mental health issues. Furthermore, her mission to educate and inspire the public about gender focused addiction treatment and the stigmas that attached to women and alcohol became her passion and career motivation.

Ann Dowsett Johnston’s authority comes from a place of experience. She was a high-profile senior journalist with Canada’s major newsweekly, an award-winning journalist, and popular on the speaking circuit. Named vice-principal of McGill University, it seemed that Dawsett Johnston had it all. In contrast, she was wrestling with a demon that had undone her own mother: a growing drinking problem. The high-functioning professional had to come to terms with her addiction and battle her way to become sober through recovery, determination and hard work. All of a sudden, Ann quickly realized that she must obtain treatment before she pushed her career and her loved ones away. During her experience in recovery, Ann eventually discovered that most of the treatment centers and therapy is focused for males who suffer from addiction throughout her recovery.

Ann Dawsett Johnston dissects the psychological, social, and corporate factors that contribute to addictive behaviours and offers practical solutions to the same contributing factors for a successful recovery. CBC, Vice News, The Guardian, New York Times, Washington Post and many more news outlets later went on to interview Dowsett Johnston as a result of her experience and research on gender focused addiction treatment and women and alcohol. CBC later made a documentary based off a chapter of her book called Girls Night Out. Because her story resonates with so many women across the world, she became a leading authority for mental health and addictions within her field.

Dowsett Johnston has won numerous awards for her work, including five National Magazine Awards. She is also the recipient of a Southam Fellowship. Feisty and outspoken, Dowsett Johnston champions the need for for political leadership on alcohol policy, a reduction in the stigma around addiction, and greater accountability in public education. In addition to her knowledge and expertise, Ann Dawsett Johnston delivers powerful and thought provoking presentation that bring awareness and practical solutions for social policy related to mental health and addictions.


  • 2015 – Ontario Psychiatric Association | T. A. Sweet Award for fighting stigma against mental illness
  • 2014 – CAMH Transforming Lives Award

Topic Presentations

Every person has a public story, a private story and a secret story. Ann’s was depression: for decades, she medicated this affliction with work. Overwork led to stress, which she ultimately medicated with alcohol. This double whammy—mental health and addiction issues—has become the twin curse of a growing number of professionals. How do you turn a life around? With grit and gusto and extreme self-care. There is no worthier role for an employer to play than helping to shepherd an achiever back to balance and health. With candour and passion, Ann will explore the signs of trouble and the signposts on the journey back to a life of joy and meaning.

To create strong alcohol policy, we need to take a hard look at the best available evidence, examine our core values and ask ourselves: what do we want for Canada? What role does the media play in the outcome? Enormous. Ann Dowsett Johnston argues that the media is key to shaping strong policy: essential in disseminating good research, advocating for change and puncturing many myths.

All too often, a troubled employee is a high performer whose life has gone sideways, who may be suffering from concurrent disorders. How do you shepherd that person towards appropriate help and then re-integrate them back into the executive or high-performing team? How do you deal with resentment and discomfort within your team? How do you foster a stigma-free environment of support? As addiction reaches epidemic proportions in North America, this is a leadership challenge for all corporate teams. People can and do recover. As one of the team of experts on the upcoming national Life in Recovery survey—which will make big news across Canada this fall—I can tell you that this evidence is well supported. I can advise on this important area, tailoring my talk to each and every sector.

Alcohol consumption is on the rise, and women are leading the growth, both here and in most of the developing world. Parity in post secondary achievement, parity in the workforce, and now this? Clearly, this is not what Gloria Steinem had in mind. The marketers think differently. Ann Dowsett Johnston explores this phenomenon: what’s driving the trend in risky drinking for all age groups, the health risks, and what can be done

It is no secret that the pandemic has caused an epidemic in women’s stress. In a matter of months, COVID took a crowbar women’s progress. With the burden of juggling home-schooling and home offices, you might argue that COVID has set back women’s progress by 50 years. Little surprise, then, to learn that according to the Rand Corporation, American women’s drinking days have increased 41 per cent in the past year. This is alarming. While men and women are democratically equal, women metabolize alcohol much more poorly: they become addicted much faster; 15 per cent of breast cancer cases are related to alcohol consumption. Meanwhile, it is well documented that while men are happier than they were in the 1970s, women are far unhappier. Ann Dowsett Johnston, once a vice-principal of McGill University and a mother of a teenaged son, knows all too well why she used alcohol to self-medicate her own depression, workplace burnout and stress. Hear her address the current crisis for high-functioning women, the revolutionary women-led recovery movement and her solutions for the years ahead.

Ann Dowsett Johnston, an award-winning journalist, bestselling author and former Vice-Principal of McGill University, is now on her fourth career—and loving it. A recent graduate from the prestigious Smith College, Ann is flourishing as a psychotherapist. Hear her take on how to live your best life, what we learn from life’s detours, and the secrets to building resilience. An inspirational, fresh take on making choices work for you

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Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol

Over the past few decades, the feminist revolution has had enormous ramifications. Women outnumber their male counterparts in post-secondary education in most of the developed world, and they are about to match that accomplishment in the workplace. But what has not been fully documented or explored is that while women gained equality in many arenas, they also began to close the gender gap in terms of alcohol abuse. In the U.S. alone, more than 23,000 girls and women die from heavy drinking each year. Combining in-depth research with her own personal story of recovery, Ann Dowsett Johnston delivers a groundbreaking examination of a shocking yet little recognized epidemic threatening society today, what pre-eminent researcher Sharon Wilsnack believes is a "global epidemic" in women's drinking.

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