It was called Essondale to honour Dr. Henry Esson Young, a minister of education and provincial secretary who fought for years for its creation. Its first patients were transferred from New Westminster’s harshly named Provincial Hospital for the Insane to Coquitlam’s 400 hectare “Essondale” in the early 1900’s. It later became Riverview Mental Hospital then simply Riverview Hospital because “Mental” carried – and still does – unwarranted stigma. In its final years it was just – Riverview – a place best known for its patient-worked farm production and the tranquility of its park-like grounds where the Coquitlam and Fraser Rivers join.
Riverview was not always as bucolic as it looked or as tranquil an asylum for the mentally ill as its founders hoped. The dark side of Riverview shocked society when it was revealed that between 1940 and 1968 at least nine women had been sterilized against their will. It was then believed by many involved in health care that sterilization of the mentally ill was an acceptable way of genetically controlling generational mental health. It took until 2005 for a provincial government to acknowledged the sins of the past and agree to an out-of-court settlement of $450,000.
There were other scandals, less horrific but, along with out of date buildings and growing demands for a better way to handle mental health problems, the decision was made to close Riverview. That decision took 20 years from its making to its conclusion with Social Credit, NDP and Liberal governments all contributing to the final decision to close the hospital. It had been decided a less institutionalized care system for the mentally ill could be provided “in the community.” Riverview, which had once provided mental health care for 5,000 was shut down .
Date of the final closure was Friday, the 13th of June, 2012, but most former patients had been re-located by then. Some in local community group homes with limited success, many seeking anonymity in shabbier neighbourhoods. All in need of a level of care which continues to prove elusive.
Police forces across BC – indeed across Canada – say they can no longer handle the growing numbers of mental health incidents they are being called to answer but are not trained to answer. Too many first responder calls to the BC Ambulance Service involve people with mental health problems. Social workers in the field have high stress case loads that make teacher’s complaints about classroom pressures look silly.
The Union of BC Municipalities recognizes the problem and wants Riverview reborn, as Maple Ridge Ridge Mayor Ernie Danken puts it, “as an institution of excellence for North America, using the best mental health care providers and the latest research.” Police voices say “amen” as do all who face the problem every day –and night – on the street. Jane Duval, executive director of the BC Schizophrenia Society, commented recently in the Globe and Mail on the number of people displaced as Riverview patients and now surviving on the street or in the justice system: “It’s a huge scandal. One of these days I think we’ll look back on it, and it’s going to be a very shameful incident in our past.”
And the provincial government? It does what it does well these days: nothing. The Riverview site, luxury grounds bordering on the exotic already in place, could with minimal government effort create a cascade of cash for the provincial treasury. And it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if that’s the way the government goes. Maybe they’ll place one of those nice bronze historic tablets in some obscure corner noting the beauty surrounding the luxury pads of Riverview were in great part the work of patients from the hospital which once stood on the site.
“Mental hospital” patients will not be mentioned of course. Might upset luxury condo buyers from China.
The government says no decision has yet been made on the future of Riverview. That is not an acceptable position. We have more than a problem here, we have a crisis. One created when decades ago and with best of intentions successive governments made a mistake on the best form of care for the mentally ill.
It’s time to correct it. Write your MLA or Premier Christy Clark and tell them so.