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Maple Ridge helper, contributor, leader named Citizen of the Year

Psychiatrist pitches in with several community causes
Dr. Bithu Mathew was named Citizen of the Year by the Maple Ridge Community Foundation, Saturday. (Phil Melnychuk/THE NEWS)

The doctor who was named Maple Ridge Citizen of the Year takes the compassionate approach needed by a psychiatrist and spreads it around to whatever local cause he can support.

Dr. Biju Mathew, president of the B.C. Psychiatric Association, has served with the Ridge Meadows Hospital Foundation, helped turn Maple Ridge’s Youth Wellness Centre from dream to reality, and is currently president of the Ridge Meadows South Asian Cultural Society.

Saturday, that effort was recognized by the Maple Ridge Community Foundation, which gave Mathew the Lifetime Achievement award, one of three Citizen of the Year awards handed out that night.

“His contributions have been remarkable for our community,” said Bart Findlay, who was on the foundation’s nomination committee.

“He’s really a psychiatrist for the whole community, I would think,” Findlay said.

Mathew became interested in psychiatry as a student in a Mumbai hospital. He pursued that and arrived in Canada in 1989.

Mathew has spoken out and helped out with a variety of causes, from helping kick start the Youth Wellness Centre, to visiting Medicine Hat in 2015, when the Cliff Avenue camp was underway, to see first-hand how that city implemented a Housing First program.

He likes to look at issues from a fresh perspective to see if there are solutions.

“I like to look at problems a little differently,” he said.

And just as psychiatrists try to improve the lives of their patients, Mathew likes to improve the lives of those in the community as a whole.

He acknowledges there will always be people who don’t want to be helped and will remain streetbound. But from a cost perspective, he said, it’s much easier and cheaper to get most people into homes.

In Medicine Hat, the average cost of homelessness to the public system was pegged between $66,000 to $120,000 per person annually. However, when people were offered housing, with supports, the cost ranged between $13,000 and $34,000.

As a psychiatrist, his sole focus is helping people.

“The biggest reward for me is to make sure they’re less troubled, they can have a smile on their face and we can help them find direction in life … but the challenges will always be there.”

Mental health issues are worldwide and statistics show it’s no more prevalent in one place than another, he added. Stigma associated with mental illness, access to health services and the opioid crisis remain three serious issues, he said.

Mathew’s help with the Youth Wellness Centre committee has been a community-wide effort that has brought The Foundry program to Maple Ridge. That’s a new provincial program that provides one-stop psychological, medical or vocational help to kids facing obstacles.

The pilot program is about to become a full-time, operating in a new wing of the Greg Moore Youth Centre, if about $3 million can be raised for the remainder of construction costs.

Mathew points out that was a group effort that has improved things for kids here.

“When we started, the waiting list [to see a psychiatrist] was too long, up to a year and a half.

“We started with zero dollars, but many people came forward.”

Eventually, they raised $150,000.

“My point is, they came from the grass roots in our community. And we have two psychiatrists … serving the Youth Wellness Centre.”

Mathew’s pet project, though, remains his 2016 book, Super 30: Changing the world 30 students at a time.

It’s been printed in four languages, is a best seller in India and is published in English, Hindi, Tamil and Marathi. It tells the story of Anand Kumar, founder of a charitable school in India called Super 30, which educates disadvantaged students with the goal of helping them access university enduation.

All the proceeds from the book are put back into the school, which now has three times the student population.

“With the sale of the book, they have been able to expand the Super 30 program. That’s my reward to see that these kids are going to college.”

Most recently, Mathew is focusing on one of the latest scourges of modern times, loneliness, noting that the U.K. government has set up a ministry dealing with the issue, while India has passed a law requiring kids to take care of their parents.

Mathew is grateful for the award, but says the praise should be shared by everyone, and all those who took the time to attend the foundation awards.

“I believe all the nominees were winners, too.”

Dr. Bithu Mathew was named Citizen of the Year by the Maple Ridge Community Foundation, Saturday. (Phil Melnychuk/THE NEWS)

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