For the past three months, mental health patients on the Coast have had a safe place to go for treatment in their own community during times of crisis.
Those involved in making St. Mary's Hospital's mental health unit a reality came together this week to celebrate its completion. The unit has already accommodated 35 patients who otherwise may have travelled to the Lower Mainland or not received the full extent of treatment they needed.
What impresses me about the unit is the collaboration between different agencies, programs and specialists to give individuals staying there comprehensive care.
Nurses, social workers, doctors, crisis workers, addictions workers, provincial ministry staff, recreational therapists and occupational therapists work together to meet the needs of the patient. Along with mental illness, there often come other related issues affecting a person's life, such as addiction. And you can't treat one without treating the other.
When I worked at both a halfway house and at a drop-in centre, a lot of the women I worked with were dual diagnosis, with both mental illness and an addiction. I saw how important it was to them to maintain close contact with their kids, their partners, their parents, their friends to make it through difficult times.
With this new unit in patients' own backyard, they can now stay close to home while getting treatment. A trip from the Coast to a Vancouver hospital can end on the Downtown Eastside. Once you're released, it's much easier to head down Hastings Street than to find your way back on the ferry.
I think Paul Charron, the director of mental health and addictions at St. Mary's, explained it best when he said they help people get back on their feet. Because sometimes when you fall, you need a strong support system to be able to get back up and walk on your own again.
This unit is not like Holly-wood psych wards, with patients trying to escape through barred windows. It's bright, it's clean, it's warm and friendly. I could see it being tough to leave after 10 days, which is the average length of stay. But the staff don't just send you on your way; they keep you connected to support services through referrals and maintain contact afterwards. And chances are, individuals may have to keep coming back Ñ but that's why it's there.
Ultimately, mental illness can affect all of our lives, one way or another. People staying in the unit are somebody's brother or sister, child, parent or friend. And they deserve to have access to treatment when they need it, in a safe, clean place, where they are treated with dignity and respect.
Kudos to everyone who fought for the mental health unit and to the health authorities for funding it.