Tragedy 50 Years in the Making

Community mental health has never been properly funded, says a one-time major player By Jonathan Sher, The London Free Press
Sunday, November 9, 2014

For more than 50 years Ontarians with mental illness have fallen through cracks in health care that swallowed the life of a London man, the former head of Canadas biggest psychiatric hospital says.

It goes back more than half a century, said Dr. Paul Garfinkel, a psychiatrist who for 12 years was chief executive of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

It has never been rectified.

It was 1960 when psychiatric hospitals began to shrink staff so that more patients were moved back to the community ­ but the funding and resources didnt follow, said Garfinkel, who retired as CEO in 2010.

While Ontario touts its investment in community mental health, it hasnt been enough, Garfinkel said. The system is critically underfunded. Occasionally, there are tragedies that remind us.

David MacPherson, 72, died last week of injuries from a fire at a 12-unit walk-up that was home to about 20 people with mental illness. Firefighters removed them from the unlicensed group home at 1451 Oxford St. E..

The man who ran the home under the name People Helping People, Keith Charles, is a recovered addict who must manage his own mental illness. Charles said he opened the homes to fill a void for people otherwise living on the street or in shelters.

The void is deep, said MPP France Gelinas, the NDP health critic at Queens Park: Sudbury, her community, has an eight-year wait for supportive housing.

They end up renting from slumlords, Gelinas said. This scenario is played out in every community.

While the lack of supportive housing is an old problem, its getting worse, she said, with demand growing and older social housing built in the early 1990s falling apart.

This is a recipe for disaster, Gelinas said.

Either the Ontario government must quickly ramp up spending for housing or require private developers to set aside space in each new development for social and supportive housing, she said.

Deputy Premier Deb Matthews of London has defended the governments response, saying the Liberals have pumped millions of dollars into services.

Ive set . . . achievable goals to eliminate chronic homelessness in Ontario, she said last week. This (death) is shedding a light on part of our community that hasnt had the attention that it should have had. Im determined to do everything we can do to make sure people living with mental health and addiction issues are housed properly.

Garfinkel says a good starting point would be to learn what went wrong in London ­ whether doctors, hospitals and other health professionals did what they should to look after those in Charles homes, and if they did not, why not.

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