At the UBCM Convention, held Sept. 16-20, several mayors voted to re-open Riverview Hospital. While we applaud Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and city police chief Jim Chu for sounding the alert about the mental health crises they see in their city, we are concerned at the support they are receiving for their proposed solution of re-opening Riverview on a number of fronts.
According to Chu and Robertson, what they’re proposing is not the “old model of Riverview” but instead an “institution of excellence for North America”.
To evaluate the best solutions for a problem, the problem must first be accurately understood. The problems Chu and Robertson identified include the burden on police of dealing with people who are seriously mentally ill and are “slipping through the cracks and have no place to go.” In our experience, and according to research, the issues they have identified are far more complex than an “institution of excellence” in the lower mainland can fix.
Over the last eight years, we have seen significant progress in how our community has addressed the issue of homelessness. Service providers, community stakeholders and government have come together to increase the number of housing options by adding 164 new units of social and supportive housing in Kelowna over the past few years. New programs and practices have been brought to our community. These have been both well received, and effective at reducing the number of people on our streets. Much progress has been made since the spring of 2007, when a local count identified 279 homeless people in Kelowna.
While much has been done, there remains much to do. Those that remain on our streets are experiencing intractable mental health and co-occurring substance misuse issues. Inextricably linked to mental illness is the issue of poverty. The average person on provincial income or disability assistance receives a housing allowance of $375.00 per month, while the average one bedroom apartment rents for $750.00. The recently calculated living wage for the Central Okanagan was determined to be $18.01 per hour. Making ends meet, especially for those struggling with mental illness, is a steep uphill battle. There remains much work to be done when it comes to addressing the issue of poverty in our province, and in our communities.
Our communities are facing mental health crises and we desperately need our leaders and politicians to sound the alert and to take drastic measures to address the issues. The drastic measures we have in mind, though, need to happen on local levels around the province – not in renovating an old institution in the lower mainland. They need to include community stakeholders, who can look at the living wages of individual communities and are prepared to strategize about affordable housing solutions for their citizens. The drastic measures need to include enhancing existing mental health resources in communities and filling identified gaps in our community, like after-hours support, discharge planning after hospital stays and services bridging the critical 16-24 age range.
What we truly need is compassion. One in five Canadians will experience a mental health issue serious enough to require treatment every year. That means every one of us either is “one” or knows “one”. Those of us who have experienced mental illness need to speak up so that others can have the courage to do the same. Those who have been impacted by the struggles associated with mental illness need to advocate, vote and demand systemic change.
Rather than investing millions in re-opening an institution in Vancouver, let’s invest in our communities and increase the capacity of those who already understand the issues to really effect change in the lives of our clients and participants. Let’s invest in efforts that promote mental health and early intervention. Let’s engage in this conversation for the sake of our community and to truly promote mental health for all.
Shelagh Turner is executive director of the Kelowna branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.