So What Have We Learned in the Past 150-Years?

“There are 48 men in one ward their beds occupying dining and sitting rooms, the one corridor and exercise room. Every pipe in the building is frozen; the well (supplying drinking water) is about dry – and we have been obliged to take the top off the boiler to prevent an accident. We keep it (the boiler) supplied by buckets of water to get sufficient for kitchen purposes. Our supply of water at present consists of what we can dip up with our buckets from a ditch at the back of the yard.”
The 48 men were “in confinement” after being certified as “lunatics”, too afflicted to care for themselves and “too dangerous to the public” to leave on the streets. The description of their living conditions is from the report of a medical officer reporting to provincial authorities on conditions at the Provincial Asylum for the Insane in 1889.
“They have had their meals in the passage between the kitchen and the ward and the weather has often compelled them to take their meals in overcoats and hats. The temporary offices have been so cold that no one could stay in them longer than was absolutely necessary.” And then maybe the greatest loss in that darkest of winters: “We have not been able to have divine services for some months…..”
I mention it all here as a reminder that the problem of the mentally ill and those afflicted with addictions, which now appear to be reaching epidemic proportions in every country in the world, is not new. I observe with a sadness of spirit that we seem to be no more capable of finding a solution to the problem today than were the medically ignorant pioneers to build a caring community on the southern tip of Vancouver Island back in the 1850’s.
The first recorded case of mental illness in the tent and shack town edging its clumsy, slovenly, way beyond the wooden walls of orderly Fort Victoria, involved a young Scottish immigrant who was displaying “irrational behavior.” Several times ”confined” and eventually classified with that cruel word “maniac”, he was shipped back to Scotland. The emerging community soon realized a ticket home was not a solution to mental illness and opened a “small infirmary” for “lunatic women”. By 1872 it was over- crowded and the old quarantine station near Ogden Pont was tidied-up and reopened with slightly gentler title – the “Asylum for the Insane.”
A few months later in 1873 the Legislative Council passed The Insane Asylums Act thus acknowledging for the first time that mental illness was a provincial concern and responsibility. Within five years the Victoria asylum was over-crowded with 36 patients. With the population rising more swiftly on the mainland than on Vancouver Island the Victoria asylum was closed and a new Provincial Asylum for the Insane was built in New Westminster. It had grounds and gardens, inmates were termed “residents” and “work therapies” were introduced. It was an improvement, but it couldn’t keep up with growing demand. The overflow was being housed in general hospitals or jails.
In 1889 new construction of an expansion was underway at a budgeted cost of $50,000 – an extraordinary public expenditure. When completed it would have several wings each with a 55 bed capacity, central building for offices and “paying patients”; there would be a separate brick kitchen and laundry – and “a large concert hall” with the entire building “hot water heated and lighted by gas.” The opening paragraphs of this piece were Medical Superintendent R.I.Bentley’s description to the Legislature of the conditions staff and patients were enduring while awaiting construction of the new facility.
When staff and patients finally moved into their new home not all problems were solved as Bentley regretfully informed the legislators. White patients, probably the ones “paying” for their treatment, did not look with favour on having to share with Chinese “residents”. Bentley said he still wanted to provide services for the Chinese but was “anxious to have the Chinese accommodated with a separate building …not only on account of the feeling of the white people and their friends…but (because) I think it will be more economical for the government.”
He estimated his patient costs would be just under 65 cents per patient per day but never explained where his Chinese segregation economies would be made. At the time 100 patients were listed, 27 of Chinese descent, 62 were “white men”, 11 were “women.” Medical men of the day listed theoretical, but widely believed, causes of “insanity” as “domestic, religious excitement, adverse circumstances, love affairs, fright and nervous shock, self-abuse (the polite way of saying masturbation in the 1800’s) and alcohol.”
As a society we’ve come a long way since we confined “insane maniacs” to “insane asylums” and thought water by the bucket from a nearby ditch was adequate for mad folk, but we haven’t really travelled very far. We have a disgraceful shambles called a Tent City in the heart of Victoria inhabited by a mix of the mentally ill people, drug addicts, the most venal of law breaking human beings who prey on the mentally ill and the addicts; a handful of homeless folk who insist they prefer outdoor unsanitary living to a clean, government provided, bed, and a small core of career criminals who find willing, often young, recruits to their wastrel life style.
Watching it all with advice but no solid solutions are The Church (all inclusive); Governments junior and senior; the law enforcement arms of those governments; the courts with decisions that bewilder rather than comfort; and taxpayers in their millions who want something done to help the helpless but only after we have provided funds for better education facilities and opportunities; better transportation links; cheaper rides on public transit systems; and on and on and on.
But we must not give up hope. After all we don’t refer to mental health victims as “maniacs” any more, we don’t talk about “lunatics” or the “insane”. It was back in 1940 when the BC Mental Hospitals Act, in the cause if progress, deleted all references to lunatics and the insane, roughly 70-years after the first Insane Asylums act.
Complex issues like mental health and treatment understandably require cautious study and understanding. But should they take so long to resolve?

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