Plans to re-open Riverview create hope for Downtown Eastside

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Riverview Hospital

The B.C. government has plans to re-open parts of the old Riverview mental hospital to increase mental health services for the province.

A new plan for the 244-acre site was announced by the City of Coquitlam in June, but B.C.’s housing minister, Rich Coleman, recently gave The Vancouver Sun an update on the project, saying that the government will modernize the facility’s form.

While the old Riverview provided long-term treatment, which basically included locking up patients, the new facility will function more as a rehabilitation centre.

“There’s still some need for some (mental health) facilities … and also some housing for people … so once they’ve got their addictions and mental illness under control through medical help, they’ll be able to live independently,” Coleman told the Sun.

As reported in June, the City’s main vision is to preserve the Riverview Lands, and use them as a health and wellness campus dedicated primarily to helping a group they call the “Severely Addicted and Mentally Ill (SAMI)”.

The re-opening of Riverview Hospital would re-establish specialized psychiatric treatment for the SAMI population by relocating programs which are currently provided by the Burnaby Centre for Mental Health and Addiction.

Riverview’s long and complicated history has sparked a lot of discussion about mental health treatment in the province and Vancouver’s homeless population. A 2013 report stated that 21 per cent of police calls involve someone who is mentally ill and St. Paul’s Hospital, the closest to the downtown eastside, saw a 43 per cent increase in patients with severe mental health issues from 2010 to 2013. Riverview closed its doors in February 2012.

“We dump these people on the streets, but even if they’re provided housing, they’re still very vulnerable to predators particularly within the drug trade. So the constant battle is not only to keep them on their prescribed medications, but to keep them away from drugs,” forensic psychiatrist Shabehram Lohrasbe told the Toronto Star in October 2013.

Lohrasbe is referring to the closing of Riverview and the immediate question of what happened to its hundreds of patients. At its peak in 1956, Riverview housed 4306 patients. That number steadily declined from the 1960’s to 2004 when there were only 800 patients. This decrease was caused by an emphasis on outpatient care and the increase of psychiatric units in acute-care hospitals, as well as the decision to downsize the hospital in 1967.

A plan was in place in 1990 to downsize the facility to 358 beds. Numerous buildings on the site closed one-by-one until the last patients were removed from Centre Lawn in 2012.

A 1992 article in Vancouver magazine by Terry Gould titled “Between Madhouse and Flophouse” made strong claims about the deterioration of Vancouver’s mental health care and the effect on the Downtown Eastside.

The article claimed Riverview would try to discharge their patients directly into homeless shelters and these ill-prepared released were turning the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver into a mental health ghetto. The same article cites the director of Triage, a Vancouver shelter, saying that many of his clients would commit suicide soon after leaving Riverview due lack of professional supervision.

“Port Coquitlam’s Riverview Hospital is being emptied, and the sick are being thrown to the wolves,” Gould wrote, aptly summarizing the situation.

There is substantial evidence to these claims; The City of Vancouver reported an increase in the homeless population from 1,206 in 1999 to 2,777 in 2014, though of course there is more to Vancouver’s homeless problem than the closing of Riverview.

The prospect of Riverview reopening to support the growing need of mental health care in the province is something people have been asking for since before the facility closed. Municipal politicians and the public have been urging the government to make this move for years, although Premier Christy Clark initially rejected requests from BC’s municipal politicians to re-open Riverview Hospital as a centre of excellence for mental health treatment.

Mayor Gregor Robertson urged the B.C. Government in 2013 to add 300 beds for long-term psychiatric care, after publishing the Task Force on Mental Health and Addictions Phase 1 Report. Robertson and VPD Chief Jim Chu also called for:

“More staffing at BC Housing sites to support tenants with psychiatric issues, more significant support through ACT teams for psychiatric patients living in the community, including those residing in market housing, an enhanced form of urgent care (crisis centre) that can ensure consistent and expert care of individuals in crisis situations, located at a Vancouver hospital, the creation of joint VPD-VCH Assertive Outreach Teams for mentally ill persons who do not yet qualify for ACT teams.”

The government responded by opening a nine bed psychiatric assessment and stabilization unit adjacent to the emergency department at St. Paul’s Hospital.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20 per cent of Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. In total, 2 per cent of the population is diagnosed with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia and suicide accounts for 24 per cent of all deaths among 15 to 24 year olds.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health reports that 20 per cent of people with a mental illness have a co-occurring substance use problem and one in five Canadians experience a mental health or addiction problem in any given year.

Featured Image: Riverview Hospital via Panoramio

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Jill Slattery Jill Slattery was born and raised in Vancouver, where she also earned an Arts degree from UBC in English and Creative Writing. She is an avid TV-watcher and a shameless Taylor Swift fangirl. Jill is a Staff Writer at Vancity Buzz. Contact her at jill@vancitybuzz.com
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