by Darrell Burnham, Special To The Vancouver Sun
In my 25 years of working as executive director at Coast Mental Health Society, I have had the honour to witness so many people find the hope and courage to recover from devastating mental illnesses. I have also experienced firsthand the breadth of support that is necessary for recovery. Since its inception 40 years ago, Coast, working with other non-profit and government organizations, has been a vital part of providing British Columbians with a mental illness the tools they need to heal, regain their dignity and reestablish their lives.
Still, overcoming the barriers to treatment that those with a mental illness face has often been daunting. Mental illness is rarely a stand-alone problem. As this week marks the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse’s National Addictions Awareness Week, it is worth noting that adults with a mental illness are more than twice as likely to have a substance abuse disorder. When mental illness and substance abuse occur together, this is known as a concurrent disorder. More often than not, the mental illness emerges first and substance abuse follows. It frequently is the beginning of a downward spiral ending in poverty and homelessness.
In Vancouver, we see the brutal result of untreated concurrent disorders on our streets everyday. According to a study published earlier this year by Dr. Michael Krausz, the UBC Providence Leadership Chair for addiction research, 93 per cent of Vancouver’s homeless have a mental disorder while 83 per cent of them have a substance abuse disorder. An article in this very publication in May highlighted that homelessness has more than doubled in Vancouver this year, with the situation set to worsen significantly by 2014 if action is not taken.
When the statistics are laid out in black and white, it becomes obvious that mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness are too closely connected to be treated independently of one another. In fact, approaching mental illness, substance abuse or homelessness as isolated problems is unlikely to bring long-term success. However, in the case of homelessness in particular, this is often the approach.
Compared with the demand, there are few places in British Columbia that are able to provide the long-term support needed to help people recover from mental illness and substance abuse. Many of those coping with mental illness and substance abuse only get access to help once they have landed in the criminal justice system or been admitted to hospital for other illnesses or even suicide attempts. Sadly, once these people have been given what can only be called triage treatment, they too often end up back on the streets with no access to followup care or the supportive framework that would enable them to manage their illness and addiction.
Darrell Burnham is executive director of Coast Mental Health Society.