A man is walking his dog on a Vancouver evening when a stranger with a knife guts him so severely his internal organs are exposed. A mother and five-year-old daughter are out for a stroll when a mentally ill woman grabs the child, swings her around by her hair and slams her face-first onto the sidewalk. Two people leaving a comedy club are fired on by a deranged man. One is grazed in the head by a bullet before the shooter turns the gun on himself and dies in the street. These random attacks were cited last week by Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu as he and Mayor Gregor Robertson urged senior governments to address the growing crisis of untreated mental illness.
“These people require health care, support and medical treatment, not the criminal justice system,” says Chu. Mental illness is now a factor in 21 per cent of all police incidents; there’s been a fivefold increase in police apprehensions under the Mental Health Act since 2002, and the downtown emergency room of St. Paul’s Hospital has seen a 43 per cent increase in persons with severe mental illness and/or serious addiction.
Both men pin some of the blame on provincial downsizing since the 1980s of the Riverview Psychiatric Hospital, which treated and housed 4,600 people at its peak in the 1950s. While Riverview was often condemned as a warehouse for the mentally ill, the alternative has turned many vulnerable people onto the chaotic streets of the Downtown Eastside, with limited treatment and an open-air drug market.
Chu and Roberston want 300 secure mental health treatment beds, a hospital crisis centre and better treatment options at provincial housing facilities. B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake says the problem needs more study.