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'I made it': Inside the addiction and mental health treatment ongoing at old Riverview Hospital site

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The Riverview Hospital itself has been closed for more than a decade, but 289 people are currently receiving treatment for mental health, addictions or both at the old site.

Sumiqwuelu, as it’s now called, has two new facilities and several refurbished structures from the old psychiatric hospital operations currently in use. The rest of the structures are administrative buildings used by various government agencies and crumbling historic edifices used only for film shoots.

Coast Mental Health operates two programs at Sumiqwuelu and provided CTV News with rare access to their facilities and insight into the supports offered both off- and on-site. BC Housing says there are currently no plans to expand the existing programs as all discussions for the site’s future are on indefinite hold. 

TREATMENT AT SUMIQWUELU

A non-profit agency, Coast Mental Health was formed in the 1960s when Riverview Hospital’s philosophy of care changed and patients were no longer expected to spend their lives institutionalized for treatment of severe mental illness, and CMH provided supports in the community. 

They deliver a 40-bed in-patient service at Riverview Hospital’s old Hillside and Brookside buildings with a rehabilitation and recovery program for people with both mental illness and substance use issues: medication, group therapy, one-on-one psychiatric care, and cognitive rehabilitation are all provided to patients who live in their own room for up to a year of treatment. 

“It’s about having access to both psychiatric and addiction medicine professionals, support staff, nurses,” said CMH CEO, Keir MacDonald. “The goal is still all about psychosocial rehabilitation, providing people the care and structured support they need to move forward to their next steps.”

They also operate transitional housing for patients leaving the Colony Farm forensic hospital, in the form of 24-7 supervision in 11 refurbished hundred-year-old cottages of three to four bedrooms that used to house Riverview physicians and their families.

“A lot of it is working on life skills they need to be able to successfully maintain a home, to be able to take their medications, the skills they need to get a job, go to school,” said program manager, Tiffany Sayers. “A lot of the clients that come here, their plan is to reintegrate into the community so we look at what are the steps.”

CHRIS CHARLIE: A SUCCESS STORY

There are long waiting lists for the kind of concurrent mental health and addictions treatment provided by Coast Mental Health but Chris Charlie was able to get a spot after an emergency room doctor told him he was facing heart failure at just 30 years old after years of drug use.

It was a wakeup call.

“I was (living) on the streets for a number of years and for about eight years I was a heroin addict, a crystal meth user,” Charlie said, describing a downward spiral following the death of his mother when he was just 16 and working construction jobs to get by.

“My whole world came crumbling down and I was looking for a solution at the end of a bottle, you know? And I took some hard bumps and rough patches but I can talk about it now.”

Charlie left the bad influences of his life in Duncan along with his son, who’s being raised by his half-brother, and went to Edmonton to begin his sobriety journey with sweat lodges, ultimately landing a spot at Hillside at Sumiqwuela where he stayed for a full year of treatment.

“I was only able to go out once a day but I was very grateful I was able to go out at all because I’ve been to areas I was locked up 24/7,” he said, explaining his mental illness had been an ongoing issue in his health.

Cognitive rehabilitation, a kind of gamified re-training of the brain, and anger management programming were particularly helpful for Charlie, who is hopeful to find a part-time job to supplement his disability allowance, and is enjoying learning how to cook while taking daily walks outside.

CTV News interviewed Charlie in his modest studio apartment in a supportive housing complex operated by Coast Mental Health with on-site help and supervision for those with complex care needs, with peer support groups and educational programming. The structure was Olympic athletes’ housing in Whistler dismantled and reassembled in Surrey.

While MacDonald pointed out supportive housing is crucial since “every step in someone’s care journey creates a degree of instability in their life,” the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions says there are only 155 units of complex care housing in the province for people like Chris, who’s been there for three months.

“If they ever had a chance to send (my old friends) a message I’d send the message that I’m a person that came from Duncan and I made it on my own with sobriety,” he said. “I faced life where I had a lot of struggles in my time and I made it. If I can make it, I know you guys can make it too.”

LIMITED UPDATE ON RED FISH

The Red Fish Healing Centre is the newest structure at Sumiqwuelu, replacing a Burnaby treatment facility with only a handful of net new beds. The Provincial Health Services Authority claimed that despite several weeks’ notice and multiple attempts by CTV News, no one was available for an interview to provide an update on the 105-bed facility. 

“Treating both mental illness and substance use holistically, through a trauma-informed lens, is central to how we care for clients and patients,” wrote the BC Centre for Substance Use in an emailed statement. “Since opening in October 2021, BCMHSUS has seen an increase in referrals to treat clients with concurrent disorders, leading to increased wait times for admissions to RFHC.”

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