Politicians, funders and mental health advocates from the North Shore gathered Monday inside the newly completed $62-million HOpe Centre to celebrate the milestone the new facility represents.
For those living with mental illness, the new centre will provide a new standard for a “respectful, dignified” place to seek treatment, said Dr. Allan Burgmann, head of Lion’s Gate Hospital’s in-patient psychiatry program.
“Having mental illness is kind of like being plopped into a small boat and cut adrift in a torrid sea,” he said.
The new facility has been designed to offer a safe harbour, he said.
The glass, light and air of the HOpe Centre’s design are also a powerful reminder of another mission behind the long-awaited mental health centre – to combat the stigma of mental illness and bring it into the mainstream.
“The building is big and open and inviting. It’s located in the community rather than being nestled away, hidden,” said Burgmann.
In addition to the 26-bed inpatient psychiatric unit, the centre will also house mental health outpatient services, the new ambulance station, a community resource centre for families on mental health issues, a clinical research ttrainingrials unit and a University of British Columbia medical education centre for training future doctors.
A peer support program and life skills training for those with persistent, acute mental illness will also be provided at the centre.
The goal, said Burgmann, is to provide successful treatment that will get patients back into the community living full lives.
That journey is often not an easy one, those gathered Monday acknowledged.
Mental illness is something most people have “difficulty explaining, rationalizing, getting our heads around,” said Health Minister Terry Lake, before taking a tour of the new facility.
“No parent ever thinks they’ll have to face mental health challenges with their kids,” he said. “It’s something that’s very difficult for families.”
For decades, the job of helping people with mental illness has been made more difficult by the antiquated psychiatric ward at Lions Gate known as “A2” which first opened its doors in 1929.
The four-storey building, which the HOpe Centre replaces, has been beset with physical problems, including inadequate mechanical and electrical systems, infestations of mice and insects and water leaks that created ideal conditions for mould.
It is a bleak place, which some patients in the past compared to the setting of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
With up to five beds in a room, the old psychiatric ward offered little privacy.
That also struck major HOpe Centre funder Robert Ho when he visited the old building.
“There’s only a few rooms,” he said. “It was gloomy and dark.”
Burgmann compares being admitted to the old psychiatric unit through the hospital’s new emergency department as akin to being welcomed to the lobby of the Hotel Vancouver, then “taken to the back alley, put in a cab and taken over to a Downtown Eastside hotel.”
For some of his fundraising talks, “I’ve had a picture of an inpatient bed beside a Downtown Eastside hotel room,” said Burgmann. “There wasn’t a lot of discernable difference.” In the new HOpe Centre, all patients will be in private rooms.
“I can see patients in their rooms instead of having to find a little alcove,” said Burgmann.
The communal areas offer large windows and views, and there are skylights and warm wood finishing. Patients being discharged will also be able to connect with community programs on-site before they leave – rather than being expected to find them later.
“It’s a much more respectful, dignified and aesthetic place for people to be treated,” said Burgmann.
The new provincial facility has only been made possible through sizeable private donations.
Of the $62.2 million price tag, the provincial government contributed $38.2 million. But a whopping $24 million came from private
donations raised through the Lions Gate Hospital Foundation, which clocked contributions from over 5,000 individuals and organizations.
The biggest donations included $10 million from West Vancouver philanthropists Robert and Greta Ho, after whom the new HOpe Centre is named, and $4 million from philanthropist Djavad Mowafaghian, whose donation went towards the new medical teaching centre.
The willingness of the Hos to donate such a large amount early in the fundraising drive was crucial to the project’s success, said Mike Nader, chief operating officer at Vancouver Coastal Health. “In being able to think about mental health at a time when mental health
was not talked about freely and openly,” he said, “they were cool enough to make this a focus and help drive this forward.”
The medical school – which will train new doctors in a variety of disciplines, not just psychiatry – also offers a big boost to Lions Gate, said Burgmann.
“You get better care in a teaching hospital,” he said.
The school will also help in recruiting doctors to the North Shore. Said Dr. Apu Chakraborty, head of community psychiatry, “If you train in a centre, you want to stay there.”
Burgmann has bigger hopes for the centre in the future.
Half of the third floor of the HOpe Centre remains undedicated space and won’t be opened when it starts taking patients in November. It’s where Burgmann would like to open 10 more in-patient beds specifically dedicated to youth and children with mental illness.
Currently there is no dedicated space for those patients. “Some of them get admitted to the adult (psychiatric) ward, which isn’t ideal,” said Burgmann, and “some of them get admitted to the pediatric ward” where it is more difficult to access specialized psychiatric help.
Burgmann would also like to see some dedicated space for older geriatric psychiatric patients.
So far neither of those projects has funding, however.
Lake said Monday those requests will have to be considered in the context of other demands for health care dollars.
“We’d love to be able to do everything that we have demands for,” he said. “Of course we have a limited amount of money, even though it’s $17 billion and 42 per cent of our provincial budget.”
Lake said any new psychiatric services will have to be prioritized by the health authority within its budget.
“We’ll have to wait and have that discussion at a later date,” he said.
Lake told dignitaries Monday that seeing the new mental health centre open should give people cause to hope.
“Sometimes you get bogged down in life and you think there are challenges that you just
can’t overcome…whether you are an individual family or a government,” he said. “When you’re involved in something like this, it gives you a lot of optimism that we together can build the supports that will make people happier, healthier and more productive.”
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