Warehousing mentally ill is cruel

Lower Mainland mayors want the province to re-open Riverview Hospital.

Lower Mainland mayors want the province to re-open Riverview, the former mentally ill warehousing capital of the western world.

Such a short-sighted, draconian measure would turn back the hands of time in a cruel and despicable fashion. It’s akin to re-opening the Black Hole of Calcutta.

In a television news interview, Mayor Ernie Daykin rationalized the request to re-open Riverview by explaining that mentally ill people are wandering our streets.

That’s great, Ernie. Keep them well medicated and out of sight. That might not solve the problem, but it would improve the optics in some of our neighbourhoods, particularly downtown.

Years ago, leading up to the closure of Riverview, as a reporter for the Tri-City News, I attended many meetings of stakeholder groups and mental health officials. I read many lengthy reports prepared by these groups and, with no exceptions which I can recall, every single stakeholder group and the mental health professionals involved, all agreed that closing Riverview was acceptable and desirable.

To a person, everyone agreed that warehousing and simply medicating mentally ill people was not only cruel, but totally ineffective and very costly.

This broad agreement was reached on the understanding that the province would maintain a global budget for mental health programs, but would switch the emphasis to community based programming and smaller facilities.

I believe that was the advent of community living and independent living programs, which have largely functioned to the benefit of clients and the communities in which they are based.

Somewhere along the line, the provincial government let its promise of global funding for other community level mental health programs die by the wayside.

The result of that failure by successive provincial governments to live up to its funding promises has allowed thousands of unfortunate souls to fall through the cracks in our mental health programs.

And now we are confronted with the sad spectacle of these victims of mental health illness and government mismanagement hopelessly wandering our streets, many of them homeless and suffering agonies that the more fortunate among us can’t even begin to contemplate.

This deplorable situation continues today with the incomprehensible request to re-open facilities that were universally deemed unacceptable for decades prior to their closure.

There undoubtedly will always be a need for secure facilities to house the small number of mentally ill people who pose a physical danger to themselves or others, but that is not sufficient justification to re-open the aging, decrepit facilities at Riverview.

There are many group homes and independent living programs functioning quite successfully in our communities and they all probably operate at a lower per day client cost than placing them in facilities such as Riverview.

It’s human nature to fear the things we don’t understand and it appears that is the case with the mentally ill people the Lower Mainland mayors want to lock up in Riverview.

Many people feel uncomfortable when confronted with people who demonstrate visible signs of mental illness. That is understandable but we shouldn’t allow those fears to lead us into making the wrong decisions.

We would all be better served through community based programs and facilities where those suffering from mental illness can find shelter and refuge.

Municipal and regional leaders should be working with federal and provincial health authorities to develop more progressive programs and facilities to avoid a return to the dark days of mental health treatment which were reflected in Riverview prior to its closure.

 

Sandy Macdougall is a retired journalist and former district councillor.

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