The Rough Road of Mental Health Care

Dates to remember:

1872 – British Columbia opened its first Asylum for the Insane in Victoria. Built on the Songhees reserve, it held 16 patients admitted for “disorders, nervous trouble, masturbation, injury to the head, intemperance, fright, (or) ‘unknown.’”

1878 – With the Victoria facility overcrowded and shadowed by scandal, the BC Provincial Lunatic Asylum was built on 100 acres of Crown land in New Westminster at a cost of $24,000. It eventually became known as Woodlands Hospital for the Insane and later, the BC Public Hospital for the Insane.

1892 – Woodlands Asylum connected to city water mains. Resident population – 135.

1896 – Clean bathing water available for each patient. Resident population – 171.

1930 – Patient per capita costs estimated at 72 cents per day. Resident population – 500+.

1940 – BC’s Mental Hospital Act amended to delete all mention of “lunatic” and “insane.”

1961 -Resident population  1,436 the highest recorded.

1982 – Government announces Woodlands to be closed. Resident population – approximately 900.

1999 – Government relinquishes any interest in the property for major health purposes, and the site reverts to surplus status

2003 – Government apologizes to former residents of Woodlands for any mental, physical or sexual abuse. Many hearings, inquiries, and a class action lawsuit follow over the rates and times of compensation until:

October 8, 2018 – British Columbia’s Minister of Health, Adrian Dix, announced: “This year, the BC government moved to finally do the right thing to extend compensation to Woodlands’ survivors denied redress for the abuse they suffered.”

Jane Dyson, former executive director of Disability Allowance BC, said she was thrilled that “after all these years of being told no, our Province is saying yes to the survivors of Woodlands.”

Time for rejoicing indeed – but with a great wave of sadness for the early victims of what our ancestors thought appropriate treatment for those who were mentally frail, and who died before public conscience could demand humanity and reform.

An example from Ken Scott’s research on the BC Public Hospital for the Insane: “In nineteenth-century British Columbia, both the medical community and the local public believed strongly in the importance of separating insane patients by gender. In 1869, two middle-class sisters, both school teachers, had been deemed insane. These ‘insane ladies’ were noisy and physically violent, and one refused to wear any clothing. They were kept locked in a bare brick cell in the Victoria city jail with only male staff supervision.

This challenge to Victorian respectability drew public attention to the severe lack of local psychiatric facilities. Eventually, a third sister, who was of sound mind, was permitted full-time access to the jail to care for her siblings. She wrote to the newspaper appealing to public respectability and arguing for gender-segregated facilities for the insane: ‘Men should be appointed to look after men – women to look after women. The cells for men and women should be in separate parts of the building … Men and women of Victoria, let us not rest until the evil is remedied.”

It took a while but “the evil was remedied” as were many others with the passage of time and flutters of conscience. But the road for mental health patients was rough as the records of “hitting, kicking, grabbing by the hair and dragging, very cold showers and very hot baths resulting in burns to the skin, extended isolation, wearing shackles and belt leash” demonstrate.

More disturbing than Scott’s grim picture of humanity at its worst are the comments from former Ombudsperson Dulcie McCallum who conducted an independent review of Woodlands’ care. She was careful to stress that while many Woodlands workers were honourable and dedicated, “there was a code of silence among many employees including those who were not engaged in abusive behaviour.”

The good guys disapproved of what some colleagues were doing, but balked at being a whistleblower and branded as “a snitch.”

We have come a long way since 1872 but it seems to me we all have a bit of that reluctance in our make-up which suggests that, while we can rejoice at the forward progress made as a society, we still have some old and nasty shibboleths to shake off before we get it right.



  1. We are usually sympathetic to people suffering from physical disorders but too many of us are reluctant to extend compassion to someone with a mental disorder. Yes, still a way to go.

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