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Cities target gaps in care for mentally ill

The issue of mental illness being pushed onto the provincial stage at the Sept. 16-20 Union of B.C. Municipalities convention. - Leader file photo
The issue of mental illness being pushed onto the provincial stage at the Sept. 16-20 Union of B.C. Municipalities convention.
— image credit: Leader file photo

Several Metro Vancouver cities are criticizing the provincial government for mishandling care of the mentally ill and some are going so far as to suggest reopening the closed Riverview psychiatric hospital.

The issue is being pushed onto the provincial stage at the Sept. 16-20 Union of B.C. Municipalities convention, where multiple resolutions will target inadequate psychiatric care and the knock-on effects for policing and other services.

Maple Ridge council is behind the suggested reinstatement of Riverview Hospital, in Coquitlam, as a "modern centre of excellence" for mental health care and support since it has the necessary infrastructure and a long history.

Its resolution argues inadequate treatment and housing for those with mental illness that followed the provincial policy shift from institutional to community care has led to "unacceptably poor outcomes" for B.C.'s neediest citizens and severe financial and social burdens for local cities.

Delta Mayor Lois Jackson supports the concept, provided it's a fully modern incarnation of Riverview and checks and balances are in place to protect patients.

It's time the issue gets a serious airing, she said.

"There's no place to house people to help them get well and get them back to a productive place in society," Jackson said. "Everybody talks around it in the Lower Mainland but nobody seems to do anything about assisting these people."

Jackson said a catalyst for her community came in recent years when police took a young North Delta man to Surrey Memorial Hospital. He was later released and went directly to the Alex Fraser Bridge, climbed the railing and jumped.

She said it makes no sense to her that in most cases there's nothing that can apparently be done but to release a mental health patient back to the community.

Delta council has also advanced a resolution to UBCM calling on the province to revamp the intake of mental health patients and set up secure holding facilities with trained guards.

Jackson said the aim would be to reduce the time police officers spend waiting in hospital for staff there to take over responsibility for a patient they've brought.

"It can sometimes be one and a half or two hours depending on what's going on at the hospital emergency at the time," she said. "That takes our officers off the road when they be needed somewhere else."

Another Delta resolution would call for the creation by senior governments of early intervention centres to house mental health or addictions patients who a doctor decides may be a risk to themselves or others.

The province says hundreds of mental health beds and other community supports have opened over the years but civic leaders contend it's not enough and their police increasingly deal with those patients instead of other crime.

One of the problems is that, left on their own, people with the most severe mental illnesses don't seek out care and often end up addicted through self-medication.

Coquitlam Coun. Craig Hodge said he hopes support from UBCM for the Riverview resolution might spur the province to shift its approach on the future of the 244-acre Riverview lands.

Riverview was closed in 2012 after a gradual shutdown over 10 years, with the goal of moving people back to their own community for mental health care.

Grass is no longer cut and the buildings are being minimally maintained.

Fraser Health still manages three facilities on Riverview for people needing specialized services.

And the health authority has a new Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team, which works specifically with people needing the highest level of care who won't go to clinics.

But Riverview continues to be viewed as a central and ideal location for more services, and Hodge said he believes some of the newer buildings, such as Valleyview, which was shut down last year, could be re-purposed as a short-term solution for those with the highest need.

"There are people on our streets or out of sight that are not getting the care that they need," Hodge said, suggesting that, perhaps the move towards de-institutionalization went too far.

No long-term plan has yet been released for Riverview and speculation is rife on the property's future.

In an exchange in the legislature this summer, new Coquitlam-Maillardville NDP MLA Selina Robinson asked Housing Minister Rich Coleman for assurance the property wouldn't be parcelled off and sold.

Coleman responded that the province sees the property as a "long-term asset" for health care, mental health, addictions and other opportunities to help people in B.C. but wouldn't be specific as to the future plans.

– with files from Diane Strandberg / Tri-City News

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