Writer Rob Wipond supports Laurel House, blasts CMHA & FIHA

Can Laurel House Be Saved?


The decision to close Laurel House by October is, simply, bizarre.

Victoria’s last remaining drop-in, education and training centre for people diagnosed with mental illnesses is a rare success story (see June’s Focus) in a beleaguered system. While the Eric Martin psychiatric hospital and Archie Courtnall Centre endure psychiatrist resignations, and while police-backed psychiatric emergency responders are greeted with fear as often as gratefulness, Laurel House’s voluntary options for leisure, peer networking, skills development, and just being oneself in a therapeutic atmosphere stand out as popular amongst both front-line workers and consumers alike. There’s no better evidence of this than the support emerging in city media coverage and letters to the editor.

Kathleen Sumilas voices the sentiments of many clients when she says, “Laurel House saved my life.”

So why have the Vancouver Island Health Authority, the funders, and the Capital Mental Health Association, the independent organization running Laurel House, recently blindsided everyone with this announcement? Yes, new programs will run from CMHA’s offices and around the city. However, everyone recognizes our lack of community supports for people diagnosed with mental illnesses has contributed dramatically to other problems like suicides, homelessness and emergency room line-ups, so why axe our most successful program?!

The answers have been dubious.

Laurel House is scientifically “outdated”, wrote VIHA CEO Howard Waldner to the Victoria Times-Colonist.

A UBC psychiatric rehabilitation specialist corrected Waldner, noting formal evaluations show Laurel House is extremely progressive.

The “decision to shift the programming”, Waldner also stated, “rests with CMHA”.

However, in a tense meeting, CMHA executive director Liam McEnery told Laurel House members the closure was “non-negotiable” and forced on CMHA by VIHA.

Conversely, Alan Campbell, director of VIHA’s adult mental health division, told me the decision had been mutually arrived at after months of strategizing with CMHA about improving job placement and youth outreach.

When I immediately thereafter asked McEnery who or what had really motivated the changes, his first response was, “What did Alan say?” He, too, then insisted it was all about improving services.

Later, under intense questioning at another meeting with Laurel House members, McEnery suggested high maintenance costs drove a “shared” decision.

Certainly, in today’s market, public services abruptly vacating two beautiful, donated heritage buildings near an upscale Rockland neighbourhood appears suspect.

In any case, what’s most exasperating to Laurel House members is that they were never even consulted. Indeed, no mental health consumers were. And since CMHA gets two-thirds of VIHA’s contract funding for area rehabilitation services, that means our community’s mental health rehabilitation system has just undergone extensive restructuring without any consultations with the people these organizations are professing to help. Further, CMHA executives have deeply hurt most Laurel House users, leaving them frightened and distraught about losing what is partly their second home, family and social life. Many clients also feel viciously undermined because, after working for years developing progressive policies, practices and relationships amongst themselves, staff and volunteers, they rightly feel a sense of prideful “ownership”, too.

Shouldn’t they have been consulted? “That would be the role of the CMHA,” replies VIHA’s Campbell.

McEnery grudgingly concedes, “That’s what we’re trying to do now.”

With Laurel House already closing, now is too late.

Both men know better. Our provincial health ministry’s “Best Practices in Mental Health” guides include a 42-page volume promoting consumer empowerment in mental health system planning. It emphasizes that mental health consumers must be given “meaningful involvement” in “democratic decision-making processes that value and actively include” their opinions. Indeed, every volume begins with an “Important Note” recognizing such consumer involvement as the foundation of modern psychosocial rehabilitation. CMHA’s professional accreditation also recognizes consumer empowerment as crucial.

And it makes sense. Imagine a group developing plans to “improve” social conditions for Aboriginal women, yet this group deliberately excluded all Aboriginal women from the discussions!

Both CMHA and VIHA had a responsibility to ensure consumers were meaningfully consulted. Instead, they’ve hacked the heart out of Laurel House, and now show little awareness of how hugely and inexcusably they’ve blundered. Campbell and Waldner have been misleading and evasive, and McEnery has been less apologetic than self-admittedly “angry”–angry with the negative media coverage, angry with the protests, and angry that few understand his grander vision.

VIHA and CMHA should mutually agree to keep Laurel House open, and then invite diverse consumers into discussions about its future and improving community services. They should encourage the Laurel House users’ fundraising campaign.

Nothing prevents this. But sadly, unilaterally closing Laurel House is symptomatic of a systemic problem.

Our health authority long ago axed its own mental health consumer advisory board, and only recently reinstated it in token fashion. They pulled funding from this city’s only consumer-run support centre. And, as strong supporters of pharmaceuticals, the CMHA and BC Schizophrenia Society (the only other prominent group supporting Laurel House’s closure) have lobbied against strengthening the legal rights of involuntary patients to opt for non-drug treatments.

Basically, despite noble philosophies on paper, there are frequently strong divisions between the people who use mental health services and the mental health professionals who typically run them. And the professionals don’t often willingly cede their powers.

Sumilas sums up the Laurel House situation: “I get the sense they think, ‘We know what’s good for you.’”

That’s why it’s the responsibility of all of us to ensure public money for serving people diagnosed with mental illnesses really does serve them, instead of serving agencies with their own agendas.

Contact Kathleen Sumilas and the group trying to save Laurel House in Victoria at 250-383-9693 or nova_agape at yahoo dot ca
Originally published in Focus magazine, August 2007.

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