Column: A Post Riverview World

By Peter Toth – The Tri-City Now
Published: July 18, 2014, 12:00 PM

Graphic images of high profile criminal acts perpetrated by mentally ill individuals are pervading the news networks these days. These incidents are usually blown out of proportion by media that seem to revel in pornographing sordid tales to their paying customers, all the while omitting the far more numerous honourable deeds. What results is a general public misled into generalizing that mentally ill individuals are violent and dangerous, when – as far as generalizations go – nothing could be further from the truth.

What is going on here? The closure of Riverview by our government and the challenges concerning deinstitutionalization are the issues I’d like to briefly discuss here, for I believe they strongly contribute to our new epidemic: a mentally ill population misunderstood and improperly cared for.

First of all, I believe the government’s biggest blunder recently concerning this issue was its decision to keep Riverview closed, as the facility could have continued to provide seclusion for violent patients while offering sanctuary for those too sick and fragile to survive in the outside world.

The government’s decision was justified as “the most compassionate and viable solution” to our mental health problem. If this is the case, then why hasn’t the “solution” shown any positive results? Why do we still hear so frequently about violent crimes? I suspect the government has thrown us a red herring in their justifications: they have no concern for our wellbeing at all, much less for providing “compassionate” treatment – they only want a solution that is cheap.

And although Riverview certainly was anything but, at least we weren’t in the midst of this epidemic before the hospital closed its doors.

If the B.C. government cannot fathom the multitude of potential benefits for reopening Riverview, they should at least realize that alternative solutions to our mental health crisis may be even more expensive to implement. For instance, by choosing to integrate severely mentally ill individuals into the community, the government must realize there has to be acceptance from the community for that person. A severely mentally ill person who isn’t accepted with open arms, but instead molested with prejudiced remarks and disdain, will stagnate or even regress in their healing path.

The need for acceptance applies in the community as it does in the work force: Employers must be willing to provide mentally ill individuals an opportunity for competitive employment, and be prepared to accommodate for their disorders, that is, if the government plans to reduce unemployment and improve our economy through deinstitutionalization.

Of course, for acceptance to occur both personally and professionally, one must curb – if not eradicate – stigma, which is so pervasive and complex that I doubt even someone as fiercely determined as Christy Clark is up to the daunting task.

For one thing, reducing stigma would be an expensive undertaking: You’d have to educate politicians, teachers, employers, fathers, mothers, priests, children – the entire general public for that matter – to dispel the many myths that abound.

I must commend Ms. Clark’s recent efforts and successes introducing new legislation to help prevent bullying in children and adolescents (a factor related to mental illness), but even she probably realizes this is only the beginning. It will take a paradigm shift of immense proportions before the public abroad realizes that mentally ill individuals – properly cared and accommodated for – can offer numerous admirable qualities both personally and professionally.

We can be loving partners, caring parents, intelligent students and diligent workers – all motivated to excel. Your acceptance of our humanity may just be the antidote to our mental health epidemic.

Peter Toth lives in Port Coquitlam.