Monday, September 03, 2007

More cuts to mental-health supports betray the lie of "community care"
Aug. 31, 2007

These are the first words I’ve written about the closure of Laurel House. Given that it’s closing for good in three weeks, that’s pretty late to be taking up the cause.
The problem was that I had a job in the non-profit sector up until very recently, which made it difficult to go shooting my mouth off about decisions being made by another non-profit.
In fact, I caught an earful a couple months ago just for sending an unhappy e-mail to other non-profits letting them know that Laurel House was closing and our community would be losing yet another resource for people with chronic mental illness. I learned the hard way that I’d have to keep my own counsel on the subject for the time being.
Me and my 800 words aren’t going to change a thing at this late date. But a lament for Laurel House is in order just the same.
If you’ve read the flurry of letters in the paper these past few weeks, you have the gist of the story. A beloved drop-in program in a Fernwood house that supports a couple hundred people with chronic mental illness is to be shut down and replaced with new, short-term programs focusing on “rehabilitation.”
It’s good news for people with lower levels of mental illness, who could go a long way with a little rehab help.
But for the people whose illnesses are more profound – the ones who loved Laurel House because it was the only place where they felt accepted for who they were – the closure is devastating. They don’t need a rehab program. They need a place to go where somebody isn’t always trying to “fix” them.
On the surface, the Capital Mental Health Association appears to have made an independent decision to close Laurel House. But I can’t shake the suspicion that the move has less to do with the will of the CMHA as it does with trying to hold onto almost half a million dollars in annual program funding from the Vancouver Island Health Authority.
Non-profits have to bend themselves into all kinds of uncomfortable positions when it comes to maintaining funding. Perhaps the CMHA risked losing the entire $500,000 unless they scrapped Laurel House in favour of more rehab-focused programs.
Whatever the real story, I find the association’s public position on the issue pretty unpalatable. In response to a fairly scathing opinion piece in the Times-Colonist last week written by one of several health-care professionals opposed to the closure, CMHA board president Karla Wagner wrote a letter to the editor noting that some clients were just coming for the cheap lunch anyway.
“They are understandably upset that the lunch will no longer be served, but in its place will be expanded nutritional guidance and a community kitchen to achieve economies of scale,” wrote Wagner.
“We will be teaching people to fish, rather than giving them fish.”
Oh, please. I’m all for the concept of giving people a hand up instead of a handout, but sometimes a person just needs someone to give them a damn fish – or at the very least, a friendly face to sit beside while they eat it. “It’s lonely sitting in a bachelor apartment,” noted one Laurel House regular.
And when you’re barely scratching by on an $800 monthly disability cheque, what’s so wrong about appreciating a one-dollar lunch? Have we no compassion left for chronically ill people who may never be able to get out there and land a paid job?
I’ve got a good friend who has relied on the kind folks of Laurel House for more than 20 years. Some days, she’s plain worn out from trying to “better” herself from an illness that will be with her for the rest of her life.
She must have done a dozen programs in the six years I’ve known her, some of which have admittedly been very helpful in stabilizing her illness. But Laurel House was the gentle background noise to all those programs – the place where she knew she was always welcome, free to pursue the painting and sculpture that makes her happy, and able to make her own choices around what she’d do that day.
Neither she nor any of the Laurel House regulars were asked about the changes that are now underway. They were just called to a meeting one day and told how it was going to be. Apparently drop-ins for the mentally ill are out of step with modern psychiatric theory - these days, it’s all about short-term, work-focused programs.
That the new programs will be run by an occupational therapist rather than the psychiatric nurse who headed up Laurel House says it all. God knows what will happen to the poor souls who just don’t have it in them to rehabilitate themselves any further.
Once upon a time when B.C.’s largest psychiatric hospital was being emptied in favour of a new kind of “community care,” we vowed we’d take care of the thousands of British Columbians who were ousted from Riverview. The closure of Laurel House is just the latest in a long string of betrayals of that promise.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Who owns the deed to the real estate property that houses Laurel House programs? Someone has plans for this valuable real estate property and it would be interesting to know whether there were any restrictions attached to the original donation. For instance can VIHA or the Ministry of Health sell this property? Is this a motivating factor in the decision to close Laurel House? CMHA was a driving force in advising the closure of mental institutions like Riverview. Too many mentally ill people in our society are living with the unintended consequences of that decision. The public must be given assurances that clients who have done well with the services Laurel House provides do not become victims of further unintended consequences.