Saturday, July 23, 2011

Editorial: A better way on mental illness

An editorial published in the July 22nd edition of The Times Colonist:
Make no mistake. The Archie Courtnall Centre has been a positive contribution to mental health care in this region. For all the problems, the centre marked a step forward in care. And the willingness of the Courtnall brothers - Bruce, Russ and Geoff [pictured] - to talk about their own father's suicide, while raising millions for mental health services, has brought an increase in awareness about the reach and grip of mental illness. Russ and Geoff Courtnall have used their status as former NHL hockey players to raise money and educate.

But there is much more to do, as the history of the Courtnall centre itself shows.

The centre - effectively an emergency room for people suffering from critical mental illness - was only built because the Courtnalls helped to raise the $2.2 million required.

Any other form of emergency room, like the one opened at Victoria General Hospital in 2009, would be funded by government as part of a functioning health-care system. Yet patients with mental illness rely on charity for emergency services.

The Courtnall centre opened in 2005. A Times Colonist editorial outlined the vision of offering patients "a quiet refuge in crisis situations." Four beds would offer shortterm care of up to 72 hours. Patients would be assessed and quickly provided with needed care in the community or admitted to hospital beds.

But demand quickly swamped the centre. Within two years, director Dr. Anthony Barale resigned. "The staff of the psychiatric emergency service struggle daily to provide even the most basic medical and psychiatric care for this suffering population," he said. "And they do so with little support and the pitiful resources provided by VIHA - resources which, even by so-called Third World standards, are entirely inadequate." In the same year, then premier Gordon Campbell acknowledged a province wide failure to provide adequate mental health treatment.

Today, mental health patients routinely spend days - some more than a week - waiting for admission to too few hospital beds, sleeping in reclining chairs in the Courtnall centre that were intended for a few hours' rest.

In any other emergency room, waits under such conditions would be considered intolerable. Again, people with mental illness are treated as second-class citizens - as if their illnesses are not real, or they do not matter.

The waits will likely worsen. VIHA has reduced the number of in-patient beds available for patients with mental illness, despite having acknowledged the shortage of beds before the cuts. Increased community resources, such as outreach teams dealing with people living with serious mental illness and addictions on the streets, have helped.

But patients and families continue to experience desperate waits for care and inadequate post-release support. Already serious conditions worsen. Some people abandon the effort to get help, or fall to the streets - or like Archie Courtnall, end their own lives.

The Courtnall centre has helped. And the fundraising events this weekend - see for details - deserve your support.

But we wouldn't accept, as a society, that care for people with heart problems or cancer would depend on the success of golf tournaments or fundraising auctions.

Our neglect carries a huge human cost, as the Courtnalls and so many others can attest. It also carries a great economic cost, as untreated illnesses worsen and people's potential is lost.

We have talked, for decades, about removing the stigma from mental illnesses and providing equitable care, as we do for most others with a medical condition. Our actions have fallen far short of that reality.
Photo credit

Up Close and Personal with the Courtnall Brothers

Also see:

Former Canucks star Geoff Courtnall opens up about father's suicide, his own depression

Mental-health patients betrayed by VIHA

VIHA cutting community mental health support

Courtnall psychiatric emergency centre overwhelmed since inception, service reductions

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