A disturbing memory of Riverview

For most mentally ill people, large warehouse type facilities are not the answer

The varied and heated response to my suggestion that Riverview should never be re-opened shows that people do care about mental health, some of them negatively and others with deep compassion and understanding.

There will always be a need for secure facilities to house patients who pose a serious risk to themselves or the community. While it is highly unlikely that such secure facilities can be affordably situated in every community, locally based programs should be available for the majority of those suffering from mental illness who pose no such threats.

At the risk of sounding repetitive, successive NDP and Liberal provincial governments have largely ignored the original commitment to provide community based mental health programs following the closure of Riverview. That systemic failure is now manifesting itself with an appalling growth in mental health problems in our communities.

My own personal experience with a close family member has taught me that, for most mentally ill people, large warehouse type facilities such as Riverview are not the answer.

Many years ago I was responsible for committing my sister to Riverview when she began acting out her apparently unmanageable delusional problems. A few days later, I visited her at  the Center Lawn building at Riverview. I was sickened at what I witnessed there and the vision of that place has haunted me ever since.

Patients  or inmates sat on the edge or end of their beds, which were spaced less than two feet apart from each other. All of these people appeared to be well beyond the point of over-medication.

And I later learned that most of the people in that ward had been shipped there from their communities, which, like Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows, had no facilities to provide refuge, shelter or programs.

Almost every day I witness homeless people wandering our downtown streets, many of them suffering from various mental health problems or the downside of substance abuse, but few of them demonstrate behavior that would indicate they need to be locked up, medicated and forgotten in some medieval complex such as Riverview.

I am not suggesting that finding a solution for the increase in mental health issues is going to be easy, but standing idly by and doing nothing is only going to lead to greater tragedies than the simple matter of unacceptable optics in our neighbourhoods and downtown business district.

Lower Mainland mayors may have been on the wrong track when they suggested the re-opening of Riverview, but they did bring the looming tragedy to the forefront.

The ball is now in the court of the provincial government, but our MLAs are not likely to do much about it because any solution will cost huge dollars at a time when every departmental budget is being slashed.

The tired old explanation about the government’s lack of ability to fund decent programs and facilities just doesn’t wash in the face of the same government’s ballyhoo about our golden future.

The downstream effect of not proving decent funding and facilities at a local level reminds me of the oil filter commercial where the serviceman says, ‘You pay me now or pay me later.’

Until there is a real shift in funding and support for community based mental health programs and facilities, we will continue to be confronted with disturbing sights of the odd behavior of those suffering because of the provincial government failure to keep its promises.

Sandy Macdougall is a retired journalist and former district councillor.

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