Latimer: B.C. mayors prioritize mental health

B.C. mayors want the province to provide more long-term care beds for those with severe addictions and mental illness and increase services.

It was with encouragement I read about a recent meeting of B.C.’s mayors. By unanimous vote, the B.C. Mayors’ Caucus declared the crisis around mental health, addictions and homelessness as a top priority for all communities.

At the Union of BC Municipalities convention last month, our province’s mayors agreed these problems are on the rise and they want action from the provincial government.

The Mayors’ Caucus wants the province to provide more long-term care beds for those with severe addictions and mental illness and also to increase community services so that everyone has access to appropriate care.

Ever since our last long term residential mental health facility closed in 2012, there has been a rise in mental health-related problems in BC communities. This is not surprising and echoes what has been happening across the country ever since the trend toward deinstitutionalization began in the 1970s.

Governments love the idea of shutting down large mental health institutions because of the cost savings. Unfortunately, the idea behind deinstitutionalization requires a simultaneous bolstering of community-based treatment centres and these never seem to get the necessary level of funding.

What results are more mentally ill people living on the streets and getting snared in our justice system rather than being properly cared for and supported.

Mental health professionals have been talking about this for years and it seems at least one level of government is finally getting the idea. The way we’re doing this is simply not working. We are dealing with people in ERs and jails instead of helping them remain functional within the community setting. This isn’t good for the individuals and it costs us more as well.

Finally, some of the municipalities in BC have adopted policies such as ‘housing first’ to combat homelessness among the mentally ill and addicted. This has had some excellent preliminary results and it is nice to see other communities coming on board.

Cities are also developing strategies to end homelessness and calling on the province to help with coordinating health care, police, social services and community supports for people dealing with complex issues.

If our local, provincial and federal governments could all combine their efforts to make these issues a long-term priority, I believe it would be possible to put an end to homelessness in our province. Not only that, I don’t think it is beyond our grasp to create a well-organized network of services combining community supports with long-term beds for those who need it.

We should be able to give excellent care to all our citizens and ensure we all have access to a healthy and dignified life.