Comment: Time for a new approach to mental health issues

A commentary by the CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce.

Mental health is at the root of the front-facing issues we see manifested on our streets every day.

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Drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness and crime related to both are the result of untreated mental health issues.

So, what can we do to ensure everyone feels safe in their homes, in their workplaces and in public spaces? How do we solve homelessness in our region, and the corresponding increase in property crimes, overdose deaths and anxiety? Manage the mental health crisis, that’s how. And do it now.

Chamber members tell me almost daily about experiences with vandalism, theft and aggressive behaviour directed at them or their customers. Our members are resilient, but the level of social discord we are experiencing is not sustainable.

At the recent Union of B.C. Municipalities convention, a group of 13 B.C. mayors including Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps called on whoever forms the next provincial government to act quickly and provide more help for people struggling with mental health or addictions.

I absolutely agree that this is the right approach. We know homelessness is a complex issue, and we might never completely solve the problem, but we need to do more.

By treating the variety of causes that result in many people ending up in homeless communities, we can make life better for everyone. We can help heal many of those whose lives are unhealthy and unsafe. Treating these challenges will mean less taxpayer money needed for the vast 911 resources currently being spent to triage this crisis.

For many years, the Chamber has listed Safe Communities as one our advocacy priorities. That means it has been identified by our members as one of the main concerns for businesses in Greater Victoria. Safe Communities includes five subcategories that form the foundation of what we need to feel safe in our homes, cities and workplaces.

Health care is one of these vital areas, and we continue to support investment and innovations that ensure people who need to see a doctor have options to do so. People asking for urgent help for mental health challenges must have access to treatment immediately.

Better regional services are also critical, so we can efficiently allocate resources where needed — we need a better governance model than we’re getting from 13 divided municipalities under the Capital Regional District.

Policing, which has been under heightened scrutiny across the continent this summer, must have the resources to respond in a timely manner throughout Greater Victoria — from downtown Victoria through to all the communities outside the core.

All of these priorities, however, are needed because we haven’t done enough to keep people from ending up homeless in the first place.

Two years ago, my predecessor wrote about a hopeful solution known as the therapeutic recovery community model. With decades of measurable results, from places such as Italy and Portugal, therapeutic recovery communities have helped people learn how to thrive without falling back on addictive behaviours that undermine their lives.

The process takes years and teaches individuals to take personal responsibility and develop healthier ways to cope with setbacks. It requires a true transformation of the self and can’t be rushed. We all want to see people contributing to society, and less time and expense spent shuttling people between emergencies.

In Greater Victoria, the therapeutic recovery community operated by Our Place Society has been up and running in View Royal for two years.

Known as New Roads, the facility holds plenty of promise. However, Canadian laws mean that people aren’t bound to follow through on the program. Many leave after achieving initial sobriety, but before they have all the tools needed to maintain their new lifestyle for the rest of their lives.

Perhaps it’s time to revisit the idea of secure facilities, where people can lawfully be required to stay connected as long as needed.

Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog has called for this, asking that we start the conversation about bringing back secure housing albeit with a modern mindset.

It’s been decades since we shuttered facilities that housed people who were unable to function outside of structured settings. Surely, we know much more now about the challenges of mental health and addictions. We can do things better today, with much more respect and compassion.

This is not a criticism of the great work done by many thousands of outreach workers. If anything, we need to acknowledge that it’s time to do more so these workers aren’t asked to do the impossible.

It’s time to move on from a system that isn’t working. It’s time to invest in a better way of caring for individuals with profound mental health and addiction challenges — people who have been left to the streets because we lack the political will to do what’s needed to truly help.

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