Mental health discrimination is everywhere

I have written many times about stigma and mental illness – and for good reason. This is the most important issue in mental health today.

Stigma is the unwritten, unspoken reason for so much of what is wrong with our treatment of the mentally ill. Signs of subtle discrimination are everywhere. You can see them in the lack of national planning for a mental health system and even in the location of psychiatric services in your own local hospital.

I was struck by a recent article in a local newspaper in which the Interior Health's CEO, Murray Ramsden, defended the decision to move geriatric beds from Kelowna General Hospital to Cottonwoods.

He was quoted as saying, "The original program five years ago was based out of the oldest part of the acute care hospital, which is an area we are trying to get all our patient care services out of because it was built in the late '30s or late '40s and is substandard".

This substandard area is the same part of the hospital where the adult psychiatric inpatient unit is currently located.

When I first came to Kelowna in 1983 I was appalled at the condition of the Psychiatric Unit and shortly afterwards I approached the hospital administrator to do something to improve the conditions.

At the time I was told the unit merely needed a "lick" of paint. After considerable discussion some renovations were agreed on and completed. These were a big improvement even though most recognized the unit was poorly designed for its use as an in-patient psychiatric unit.

Since then, more than 20 years have passed and hospital accreditation reports have designated this part of the hospital as unfit for patient care for at least the past 15 years.

Ten years ago the hospital, under a lot of pressure, agreed to start a planning process for a new in-patient psychiatric unit. A consultant was hired at considerable expense and hundreds of hours were spent by psychiatrists, nurses, administrative staff, patients, advocacy groups and other members of the hospital staff to come up with a comprehensive proposal for relocating psychiatric services.

After dozens of meetings, focus groups and individual interviews, the completed plan achieved widespread agreement and input from those involved.

Unfortunately, nothing happened after the plan was submitted –the silence was deafening. In the end, the whole process was a colossal waste of time and money during which hopes were raised and then dashed.

During all these years when nothing has been done, the local hospital has moved forward with numerous other worthy projects. We have had a new cancer center, a new intensive care unit, a renovated emergency room, a parkade, and a recently announced new tower and open heart surgery facilities.

Some might argue that these services are more important than mental health services and therefore should take priority. This is not the case. No matter what angle you take, psychiatric disorders top the list. To name a few areas, mental illness is more prevalent, causes more disability and costs the economy more than most other health problems.

Choices to fund other projects in lieu of improving psychiatric units are not made on a rational basis but on the basis of public perception, lobbying, and advocacy.

In reality the psychiatric population has few champions. People don't want to talk about mental illness and those with psychiatric disorders are often ill-equipped to organize fund raising and other promotional activities.

As an excellent example of this disparity, simply compare the number of people who participated in this year’s “Run for the Cure” in support of breast cancer research with those who attended “Walk the World” for mental illness awareness and support.

We are all touched by mental illness and we should expect our government and health authorities to lead the way in abolishing discrimination.


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