Vancouver task force to focus on mental health treatment measures
A new city task force on mental health and addictions will look at ways to address what one psychiatric expert calls a crisis comparable to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Downtown Eastside in the 1990s.
In a presentation to city council today (October 22), Dr. William Honer, the head of UBC’s department of psychiatry, cited studies including his research published in August, which indicated nearly three quarters of single-room occupancy hotel residents surveyed had mental-health problems, almost all had problems with addiction, and their mortality rate was five times higher.
“I think we’re looking at truly crisis proportions,” Honer told council. “We think back to the 1990s, the last health crisis in the Downtown Eastside was around HIV/AIDS, and I think there was a concerted response from the province and the health authorities which really was hundreds of millions of dollars of investments in that, with a great success…I think we’ve got a similar magnitude of problem here.”
The comparison to the HIV/AIDS epidemic was also made during an announcement last month by Vancouver police chief Jim Chu and Mayor Gregor Robertson, when they said there is a “growing crisis” of severe, untreated mental illnesses in the city.
At that time Robertson and Chu also issued five recommendations to the provincial government, including calls for 300 long-term mental health treatment beds, more staff at B.C. Housing sites to support people with psychiatric issues, and the creation of new outreach teams comprised of police and Vancouver Coastal Health staff.
City manager Penny Ballem told council that during a mayor’s roundtable discussion on mental health earlier this month, service providers expressed support for the recommendations. They also talked about the need to expand access to current treatment, including establishing more Assertive Community Treatment teams to reach people with mental health and addiction issues in the community.
Vision Vancouver councillor Kerry Jang, who will act as the city council liaison on the mayor’s task force, said another key action articulated at the roundtable event was to ensure consistent follow-up for mental-health patients.
“Follow-up typically is you show up at the doctor’s office at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday, but if you’re having a bad day, you’re never going to get there,” Jang said in an interview.
“What we heard today was that we have ACT teams that can go and make sure you’re doing ok. So we’re almost going back to the old style of health care in which you have house calls again, but not having an expensive physician go in every time, but someone who’s really well-trained in psychiatric care and psychological care.”
Honer’s research on SRO tenants also indicated that four out of 10 SRO tenants were not being adequately treated in that they were not on any medication, and three out of 10 were not receiving any health care.
Ballem noted there are “major gaps” in the continuum of care for people with serious addictions and mental health issues.
“We have significant numbers of people with severe mental health and addictions issues that are not getting access to any treatment, and certainly in many cases not to appropriate and adequate treatment,” she said.
Robertson said he’s hopeful the provincial government will take action on the mental-health recommendations “in the very near term”.
“Our staff are talking now,” he told the Straight. “We’re looking at urgent solutions, and we’ll integrate that work with the task force, and hope to see a real change in the near future.
“It’s good to see we have key staff members talking between the city and province, and I think that the body of research is there to help direct those next actions.”
The new task force on mental health and addictions will meet in December. In Ballem’s comments to council, the city manager noted that addressing the broader mental-health crisis will be “a long-term issue”.
“We’re not going to solve this in the next couple of months,” she said. “This should be modeled on best practice from a lot of the Four Pillars [Coalition] work that was done…we have to mobilize our community over time.”