Homeless Joe: There are too many cracks in Ontario’s mental health system
TheStar.com – opinion/editorials
Published On Thu May 31 2012.
Homeless Joe, as he likes to be called, suffers delusions about being beaten, raped and tortured. This personal horror show has left him homeless, estranged from his family and in constant danger that one of his intense outbursts will result in a bad encounter with the police.
There are anti-psychotic medications that can help make these terrible visions go away but, as reporter Liam Casey showed in Thursday’s Star, giving 52-year-old Réal Leclair a prescription simply isn’t enough. Once he is out of the hospital and back on the streets—with too little support—he just stops taking them.
So long as Leclair’s home is a tarp lean-to under the GO train tracks, he has very little hope of ever being made whole and well again. In this, he is, sadly, far from alone.
Homeless shelters, parks and city streets are a daily showcase of the ill and the addicted. In Toronto alone, on any given night, there are around 5,000 homeless people. As many as a third of them have a serious mental illness, like schizophrenia or severe depression, says Dr. Vicky Stergiopoulos, head psychiatrist at downtown Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital.
The result is a revolving door of crisis and hospitalization. The price tag for it, in Ontario alone, runs to the billions annually. And that’s just the cost to taxpayers. There is also the immeasurable cost in suffering for people like Leclair and their families.
Right now, street nurse Anne Marie Batten is trying to get Leclair into an affordable apartment. He hopes it happens soon. “Then I can eat better, shower every day, clean my teeth and sleep better,” he says. “Then maybe I can get a job.”
The avenue to a better life is different for everyone suffering from mental illness and, often, an addiction as well, but safe affordable housing and a strong support network will always play an integral role.
That’s why housing and co-ordinated community services were two key recommendations in a report by Canada’s Mental Health Commission. Its comprehensive blueprint for a national strategy to properly treat and support Canadians with mental illness was released earlier this month.
That report – and so many others that have come before it – make it crystal clear that mental illness can not be viewed just as a health concern or tackled with one approach. The solutions cross federal, provincial and municipal political boundaries and run across multiple departments including health, education, social services, housing and corrections.
Successfully helping high-needs patients takes an extraordinary level of co-ordination. Without it, people simply fall through the cracks. Nurse Batten and Toronto police officer Scott Mills who are trying to help Leclair have sees that first hand.
But, as Stergiopoulos says, “there are no excuses, really, for letting people fall through the cracks.” She’s right.
It’s long-past time that Ottawa and the province sees that and finally produce the comprehensive co-ordinated mental health approach we need to reach Leclair and thousands of other Ontarians.
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