Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Warehousing mentally ill is bad, except for alternatives

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RICHMOND, B.C. -- People with serious brain disease have been in the news recently. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu have come out to announce that we are having a crisis of mentally ill people.

This was partly triggered because someone tried to kill an innocent man sitting in a coffee shop. The someone had just been released from St. Paul's hospital for the nth time after telling the psychiatrist that he felt like stabbing someone.

It is also partly because mentally ill people are wandering around the streets of downtown Vancouver bothering people.

I don't mean "bothering" in the sense they are annoying or bugging people, although some probably do that too.

I mean "bothering" in the sense that any caring person would be disturbed to see someone, obviously very sick, talking to a fence or a car or a telephone pole. Or looking jerkily or nervously at you and then quickly away if you look at them a second too long. Or ranting or raving or sleeping under a filthy blanket. Or crawling along Granville Street before being shot dead by police.

More than one per cent of the population has a serious debilitating mental illness that precludes them from working at gainful employment. This is the main reason why people with mental illness often find themselves homeless. They have no money and no way of getting any.

I say one per cent because that is incidence of schizophrenia across the world and right here at home. So in greater Vancouver, population 2.5 million, there are about 25,000 people living and suffering with schizophrenia.

I believe that bipolar disorder would add at least another one per cent to that number. That's another 25,000. Both of those illnesses, if not treated, cause people to believe things that are not true, hear voices that no one else can hear, and become confused about what is real and what is only in their brain.

Major depressive disorder might also add another two or three per cent, maybe more, to the total. The black dogs of depression cause people to have no hope, no joy, deep despair, and no motivation to go on living.

These people are suffering from serious mental illness, but the world does not take them seriously or believe them. Because they often cannot speak for themselves and seek treatment, they go without medical aid.

Some are sheltered at home until their household bursts apart under the daily stress of living with someone who is not in their right mind.

Some have no family and become a homeless statistic.

Many die a premature death due to the horrid conditions they are forced to live in due to the benign neglect and lack of resources. They have no money and no advocates to carry their case forward to "the authorities."

Many commit suicide because they cannot bear to live another minute with their illness.

Some, due to the grace of God, get hospitalized for a time. In hospital they get food, clean beds, regular medicine, baths, a warm and dry place. They get social activities such as watching TV with other people. They listen to music. There are programs which teach cooking and computer skills. They get to go for walks. People care about them.

Until we closed it, Riverview had all this, plus a great place called Penn Hall with a tuck shop, and billiard tables and even some computers. They had dancing contests.

Riverview patients didn't sleep on urine-soaked mattresses, take untested street drugs, dumpster dive for food. They saw doctors and got treated.

Today, people go around hugging themselves and saying "Isn't it wonderful that we don't institutionalize people like we did in the bad old 20th century. Insane asylums were horrible. The community will take care of these afflicted human beings."

Except that it doesn't.

From the outside looking in, maybe you feel that way, that we are warehousing people and treating them horribly. From my perspective, the only time my loved one was really safe was when he was in hospital. Institutions and warehouses are warm and have food and nurses and doctors. City streets don't.


Marilyn Baker is a freelance writer living in Richmond B.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 30, 2013 A11

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