WENDY ELLIOTT COLUMN: Supportive housing is a must for people with mental illnesses

Wendy Elliott welliott@kingscountynews.ca
Published on February 21, 2016
Wendy Elliott Column

On Feb. 24, the Kings County chapter of the Schizophrenia Society of Nova Scotia is going to look at a very important issue. Halifax resident Linden Gray will speak to the chapter about supported housing in the community for people recovering from mental illness.

As a mental health advocate and a founder of this Dartmouth venture, Gray will speak about the social housing project that opened in 2014. Gray, whose son has schizophrenia, had bemoaned the lack of housing where residents can obtain help from staff and volunteers.

"Adequate housing is not available... People are couch surfing, living in basements, living in shelters," Gray said in a CBC interview several years ago.

Back in 2010, Judge Anne Derrick made 80 recommendations after the death of a mentally ill man, Howard Hyde, in a Halifax jail. Many improvements have been made – but housing support is not one of them. The former NDP government did bring in a mental health strategy that added about $5.2-million to funding in 2012-2013 to create community-based programs.

The thing is, we don’t need to create the wheel. The At Home/Chez Soi research program that was carried out in five cities proved that. For every $10 invested in the housing first model, $8.27 was saved in money spent on other services, such as hospitalization, shelters, police services and the judicial system for high-need participants, and $7.19 was saved for moderate-need participants.

The four-year pilot program began in 2009 to fight rising rates of homelessness. It was based on national statistics that 520,700 people living with mental illness are inadequately housed, including up to 119,800 who are homeless.

Through the police beat, my eyes were opened to the lack of support for the mentally ill. For example, there was the woman who was reported to the Kings District RCMP 29 times in two months. She needed help and wasn’t getting it until she was sent to the East Coast Forensic Centre for assessment.

Police officers often sit in the emergency unit with the mentally ill, hoping they will be admitted and wishing they could get help. The hospital system, however, is aimed at patients with physical traumas.

Now I am not an NDP member, but I was impressed when I heard provincial leadership candidate Dave Wilson commenting on this issue on the radio last week. During his years as a paramedic, Wilson has said that the underlying cause of a large percentage of emergency calls is mental illness.  He said it is not uncommon for those suffering from acute emotional trauma to be turned away.

Wilson is advocating for a Manitoba model of Mental Health Emergency Rooms to be implemented at hospitals around Nova Scotia.

“They will provide a safe and caring environment for patients, free of the turmoil and troubling stimuli often present in the traditional emergency room setting,” Wilson said. “They will also be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and staffed by health care workers whose field of expertise is mental health.” 

There will be much to discuss when Gray comes to New Minas. Her talk will start at 7 p.m. As Health Minister Leo Glavine recently predicted, mental health will be deemed the disease of the 21st century, and as actor Andy Jones told me last summer, in too many ways the mental health field is still in the 15th century.