Robert Ho gives millions to Lions Gate Hospital to boost mental health
Robert Ho used to describe himself as the black sheep of the family: instead of pursuing the successful businesses his grandfather started in his home city of Hong Kong, he studied journalism at Columbia, earning his master’s degree. Ho worked as a reporter for the Pittsburgh Press before getting hired at National Geographic, where he was White House correspondent.
His reporting days are long over, but eventually Ho did return to his roots, taking over the family’s property and investment companies. For that, Metro Vancouver should be thankful. His job as a journalist would never have enabled him to make his recent, staggering $10-million donation to the Lions Gate Hospital Foundation, toward a new mental-health centre.
Scheduled to open in 2013, the four-storey Greta and Robert H.N. Ho Psychiatric and Education Centre, or the HOpe Centre, will include a 26-bed inpatient psychiatric floor and a dedicated teaching space for UBC medical students, among other features. Replacing Lions Gate Hospital’s current inpatient psychiatric unit, which goes back to 1929, the new centre, which will cost $62 million, could be the best thing to happen to the quality, consistency, accessibility, and delivery of mental-health services on the North Shore. And the Hos’ donation could be the strongest message yet to people of all backgrounds that the stigma of mental illness has to be eradicated.
During an interview at his West Vancouver office, Ho explains that after the death of his parents and grandparents, it was up to him to carry on the family business, as well as its philanthropic activities.
“The family’s motto has always been ‘You must learn how to give before you can receive,’ ” the soft-spoken grandfather of three and Buddhist says. “Starting with my grandfather, we’ve always been contributing, and I’m just following the family practice.
“You give, you have a sense of happiness,” he adds. “There’s a sense of harmony: you give, and you feel you have a sense of attachment to the recipient.”
As founder of the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation and the Tung Lin Kok Yuen Canada Foundation (which operates the Buddhistdoor website, following Ho’s grandmother’s vow to share Buddhist philosophy and help alleviate people’s suffering), Ho has made several other donations to local and international organizations. They include $15 million to the Vancouver General Hospital and UBC Hospital Foundation for the just-opened Robert H.N. Ho Research Centre, $5 million to establish the Ho Center for Buddhist Studies at Stanford University, and over $2 million to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for the first permanent gallery of Buddhist art and sculpture in the United Kingdom.
The Hos’ donation followed the $12-million gift from local businessman Joe Segal and his wife, Rosalie, to the VGH and UBC Hospital Foundation toward a new mental-health pavilion at Vancouver General Hospital. More recently, North Vancouver philanthropist Djavad Mowafaghian’s foundation donated $4 million to the HOpe facility, specifically to its UBC Medical Education Centre.
Such donations will go a long way to reducing the shame surrounding mental disorders.
Given the stigma related to mental illness in general, and in Asian communities in particular, the Hos’ donation in support of mental health is especially significant.
Ho explains that when he was deciding where his gift to Lions Gate Hospital would best be used, he went straight to the doctors and nurses there and asked them what they thought the facility most needed.
“Without any doubt, they said a new mental-health centre. They said, ‘It’s older than your grandfather,’ ” Ho says with a laugh.
“It’s a gloomy place. I went in there and looked at it and said, ‘Yes, it’s got to be torn down.’ Why not give these people hope? Why not educate the public…that this is something we can openly discuss? Why do we have to hide it?
“Hopefully, this will snowball and make the public aware that no longer should mental illness be kept in the closet. I hope I’m doing something positive by saying to the Asian community, at least in Vancouver, that this is something we have to face, and face openly.”
Evidence suggests that ethnic minorities experience mental-illness stigma more severely than those in other groups.
“Though it’s not fully understood why, a greater sense of group identity in Asian and African cultures seems to extend stigma to the extended family more than in the Western world,” according to the website of the B.C. Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information, a group of nonprofit mental-health and addictions agencies. “As a result of this family-shared shame, coupled with different cultural perceptions of causes and treatments for psychological problems, research confirms that some minority groups in Canada delay longer in seeking any kind of treatment than Euro-Canadians. For example, in Statistics Canada’s most recent mental health survey, people born outside Canada were less likely to use a health service for mental health reasons.”
Allan Burgmann, medical director of acute-care psychiatry at Lions Gate, says the new centre can’t come soon enough.
“The current unit is unsafe for patients and staff; it is riddled with the problems of an old building,” Burgmann tells the Straight, citing such current challenges as inadequate heating and cooling systems, a leaking roof, plumbing that repeatedly fails, no private patient bedrooms, and only two bathrooms for up to 28 people to share.
“It is quite a demoralizing and undignified place for people to try and recover from their illnesses,” he adds. “The new building will be purpose-built for psychiatry. It will have all private rooms with ensuite bathrooms. It will be designed to maximize safety and maximize areas to do therapeutic work with patients. It will be designed so that it doesn’t reinforce the stigma of mental illness…with a user-friendly, therapeutic, welcoming layout....Great changes are happening to improve the delivery of psychiatric services.”