Alberta Health Services shortchanging mental health patients

Fortunately I am not an employee of Alberta Health Services, so freedom of speech is still mine.

Fortunately I am not an employee of Alberta Health Services, so freedom of speech is still mine.

I would like to discuss their recent proposal to move mental health patients from the Alberta Hospital Edmonton out into community support and independent living.

I have been associated with the Champion’s Centre in Ponoka for a number of years. It is a successful supportive residence for people with barriers to independent living.

I am acutely aware of the shortage of affordable housing options in Alberta. I know how fragile the boundaries are between safety and disaster for mental health patients.

So it seems perhaps Alberta Health Services is suffering from its own form of delusional thinking. How can they contemplate releasing still-fragile patients to face a netherworld of extremely expensive housing options and overstrained community support; this at a time when the province’s rental support funds are maxed out?

Psychologist Albert Maslow formulated his famous triangle of the hierarchy of basic needs. Maybe AHS needs reminding that the foundation of his triangle is physiological: food, shelter, water, washroom facilities. Without these, a person’s sense of self quickly breaks down.

To begin with, the cost of housing is exorbitant.

Former mental patients are often not well received by landlords who have had to deal with problems caused by those who can’t manage alone.

Next, how do lonely, barely stable people manage time-related things like taking meds, preparing and eating three healthy meals a day, paying bills on time? Many cannot.

People with mental illnesses have often burned their bridges in terms of supportive family or friends.

Many families have suffered the ups and downs of manic depressive incidents long before the diagnosis was in — and by that time, the family is tapped out financially and emotionally. With no substantial family support, they are at the mercy of the street.

Once on the street, they end up in the world of the homeless — rife with drugs, violence, prostitution, crime.

How can they acquire, keep safe or take their necessary medications at a regular time? Some sell their drugs for money to eat. Soon they become regular visitors at emergency for a quick fix, a hot drink or meal, perhaps a warm room or bed. Or in the lock-up at the cop shop where at least for a night the other vagrants won’t pester them and they’ll get toast and coffee in the morning.

How this outcome will save taxpayers any money is beyond me.

I was shocked to be told this spring (prior to the AHS mandated silence) that most mental patients in Ponoka’s Centennial Centre have an average stay of 20 days.

Once stabilized, if there is no housing available in Ponoka, and if a family member will not take them in, the person is put on a Greyhound bus for Calgary or Edmonton and given a room at a homeless shelter.

Wow. We spend perhaps a $100,000 in public tax money for professional time and effort to get someone back on their feet and then cast them out on the street!

So, before AHS starts putting people into independent living — a situation many are not able to handle alone, maybe we should first create sufficient affordable or supportive housing.

The quick and simple answer for affordable housing is to allow homeowners (like over-housed seniors) to turn their homes into boarding houses with simple secondary suites. To do this, we need to breakdown the municipal regulations that oppose it or that make it financially impossible.

The next is to build well-managed single occupancy boarding houses of 15 to 20 rooms in the downtown core and near areas of business so that people can work, live and walk to work or services so that living is affordable.

Perhaps churches could manage these facilities, ensuring that alcohol, drugs and prostitution do not infiltrate the living facilities. Also the facility needs to offer at least one healthy, hot, sit down meal a day, which helps create a therapeutic community. The Champion’s Centre concept works. It is a great model (http://www.thechampionscentre.ca/)

Without first addressing the fundamental housing and support needs of mental patients, releasing them into community is equivalent to burning taxpayer dollars, and consigning the mental health sufferers to the trash . . . literally.

Michelle Stirling-Anosh is a Ponoka freelance columnist.

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