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  • Gayle Baker

Seeking Mental Health in Our Community - Beginning with Dignity and Tolerance for All

September 4

Fifteen participated in this ASK Salt Spring gathering on one of those perfect last days of summer in the United Church Meadow. Although all questions were welcomed, the focus of the conversation was upon mental health in our community. We were pleased to welcome health professional and co-chair of the Salt Spring Health Advancement Network (SSHAN), David Norget; President of the Salt Spring Community Health Society, Jennifer Williams; and Willie McPherson, of the Chu’an Society.

David began the conversation by speaking briefly about himself and his involvement with SSHAN, a network of health professionals and health-related non-profits working together to address health issues challenging Salt Springers. He initiated the conversation by briefly telling us about SSHAN’s mental health initiative, dedicated to collaborating and cooperating to bring seamless mental health services to our island.

Jennifer told us about the mental health initiative of the Salt Spring Community Health Society, called "Mental Health First Aid.” Described as CPR for mental health incidents, this program (funded by the Salt Spring Foundation, CRD, and the Federal government and with generous sponsorship from Country Grocer), covers all the costs of training for those interested in becoming prepared to stabilize a mental health incident before it gets out of control. This initiative was undertaken by the Salt Spring Community Health Society in response to the results of their community-wide survey conducted last year: One clear result of this valuable survey was that better mental health services were desperately needed on Salt Spring.

So far, two sessions of this training have been completed - with 36 graduates. The initial session was comprised largely of first responders, such as Fire, Search and Rescue, and Paramedics, as well as managers of businesses seeking to defuse an incident before it gets difficult.

The second session was largely comprised of community members with a desire to help stabilize a mental health incident. Remarkably, 17 graduates of this second group offered to participate in outreach to help our community. While the specifics of this outreach have not yet been determined, the potential benefits for our community are undeniable as well as very exciting.

Jennifer expressed enthusiasm for the potential of this training and the difference that it will make when more and more community members are better prepared to recognize and potentially stabilize a mental health incident. Another session is due to begin soon. Watch for announcements in both the Driftwood and the Exchange.

These two sessions were conducted by a mental health professional hired from Vancouver Island. In addition to securing the funding for these sessions, the Salt Spring Community Health Society is in the process of hiring local personnel to get the training needed to teach these courses. With local teachers, these courses can be offered even more frequently.

In addition to this initiative, the Salt Spring Community Health Society sprang into action early in the COVID crisis by partnering with the Rural and Remote Family Practice in coordinating a community-wide effort to locally-produce the personal protective equipment (PPE) needed by our health care workers. Made possible by the efforts of seamstresses, free use of the Lions Hall, identification and acquisition of needed materials, and volunteers, an adequate supply of PPE was distributed to those on our front lines. Credited as an amazing success, it is a clear illustration of local creativity and resilience.

We learned that mental health services are needed in all segments of our community; this need is not focused only upon those who are inadequately-housed. Unfortunately, with no private space, it is generally only these incidents that are publicly-viewed. Willie, now recovered from his serious mental health challenges, reminded us that, while difficult, his journey to health was made easier by his privilege: he had a supportive family as well as needed financial resources. He asked us to imagine how difficult, if not impossible, it was for those with neither support systems nor money to pull themselves up from the depths of mental health challenges. Without at least those basic needs, that journey is nearly impossible.

We were reminded that we all fall apart a bit sometimes. We were asked to consider how much more difficult this emotional vulnerability would be if one were cold, hungry, and scared. Add to that the judgment some of those of us who are privileged heap upon those who seem “different,” and the challenges mount. When Willie was ill, he was perceived as a threat. This perception creates a reaction - threatened people often react in threatening ways.

Instead of judging and reacting, we were reminded that our caring, privileged community need to step up to be part of the solution.

One participant recalled an incident she observed recently in Centennial Park in which an altercation broke out with one threatening the other with a glass bottle. She asked: What should I have done? Should I have called someone? Who?

Problems like this are not uncommon and, when not addressed, can develop into something very serious quickly. They are seldom in isolation; they are more often the result of years of simmering problems. Trauma is about not feeling safe. When those who are marginalized feel safe, they will be more able to address their mental health needs positively and less likely to react negatively.

Despite the need to understand and employ tolerance rather than judgment, we were also told that the whole community has the right to feel safe and dealing with violent episodes is important. Those behaving dangerously need boundaries.

Willie spoke of the marginalized young men with whom he works, noting that, for many, he is the first male in their lives to give them positive attention. The absence of this male attention can stunt the maturation of boys, leaving them in an extended adolescence.

These young men tend to respond appropriately when they are feeling understood. When feeling judged, they are more likely to respond inappropriately, thus feeding a vicious cycle of misunderstanding, and, too, often, misbehaviour.

It is about treating all with dignity, even if they do not look and speak like us. Sometimes, the best way to do this is to encourage those who have recovered from mental illness to reach out to those suffering from it.

Serendipitously, we were then joined by several members of our inadequately-housed community. They shared their battles with mental health and spoke with passion of efforts to build communication with those who are not challenged by this illness. They shared the unbelievable complexity of supporting those who are ill, and asked for patience so that we can all address the issue together. They told us of their constant efforts to make sure those in the Park behave.

We learned that the group that gathers in Centennial Park is actually comprised of several different groups. While some are our long-time unhoused or inadequately-housed community members, others actually have homes and the money to buy too much alcohol. When these inebriated Salt Springers join those in the Park, it is easy to assume that they are part of our unsheltered community. We also learned that others in this group are transients who pay little attention to the accepted mores of behaviour followed by our unhoused or inadequately-housed community. Unfortunately, many Salt Springers view and judge them all as one group.

One spoke of aid from the system and of its mixed success: While housing kept him warm and dry, he told us of his declining mental health and feelings of isolation when in a room by himself. He moved out of this housing when he realized that he needed to be a part of his unsheltered community to get the socialization he needed.

He also spoke of years of struggle to get disability benefits, made almost impossible by his inability to get a primary care doctor. The good news is that on Salt Spring he could get a doctor - after seeking one for 17 years in other communities - and that some barriers have been removed. But, COVID intervened, making it impossible for him to meet with his psychologist as well as making it far more difficult to accomplish even those simple things like applying for benefits.

Having someone to be his advocate and help him navigate the complicated systems is very helpful. While Community Services staff have been helpful, the rapid turnover of personnel has made accessing even that service difficult.

His suggestion is to offer those in our community who are unhoused or inadequately-housed a place to be rather than routing them from park to park. With a space that would be away from the centre of town, there would be a safe, relatively-private place - without the same level of scrutiny and judgment one receives in town - to work out issues and build community.

One participant reminded us that the problem of rowdiness, drinking, and mental health challenges are prevalent throughout British Columbia. Forcing them to leave Salt Spring will not solve the problem. Instead, they are a symbol of a widespread economic problem illustrating the cruelties of capitalism. This participant predicted that it would get worse before it gets better, with many more with nowhere to go, living in tents in parks.

It was asked whether urban areas would have more appropriate facilities to help those facing mental health challenges. It was countered that government-supported facilities that isolate those with mental health challenges may not be the best place for them. It was suggested that, instead, Salt Spring should find the solution to the specific needs of our community and, once that is identified, get government funding to implement it. It is not up to the government to figure it out; it is our responsibility. Once this hard work has been done to identify solutions, it is up to the government to support the resulting good ideas.

With the auspicious beginning of our Mental Health First Aid courses and the possibilities these graduates have to make a significant difference, Salt Spring may even become a model for other communities addressing similar problems.

The conversation shifted to the fact that mental health issues, and the violence that too often accompanies them, is not unique to the unhoused or inadequately-housed. While illustrations of the violence associated with mental health issues is visible to all when it occurs in the Park, similar scenarios are also played out too often in the privacy of Salt Springers’ homes. The grief our community still feels over the homicide/suicide is a stark reminder that mental health challenges are present in all economic levels and demographics. While the grief for this loss is still raw, it is a clear illustration of the importance of dealing with issues early before they become almost impossible to contain.

As 1:00 approached, we were all reminded that we each have a personal responsibility. While it may seem natural to judge others who act inappropriately, we must also recognize that our judgment can exacerbate the problem. Mental illness is an illness like any other. Remembering to treat all with dignity - no matter their disability - will go a long way toward breaking the cycle of frustration and misunderstanding too prevalent in our community.

At the conclusion of a fascinating - but deeply-emotional for so many of us - dialogue, we bid a fond farewell to Willie, Jennifer, and David, thanking them for all the great work they are doing helping us to better understand as well as offering some tangible things we can all do to help break this unhealthy cycle. . .possibly as simple as sharing with our friends the need to replace judgment and fear with compassion, care, and understanding.

Interested in participating? Come to the next ASK Salt Spring gathering this coming Friday, September 11, from 11-1 in the United Church Meadow to welcome our CRD Director, Gary Holman. (If it rains, we will gather in the Portlock Picnic Pavilion.)

All are welcome to ask questions, listen to those of others, and participate in lively conversations.

Socially-distanced chairs and safely-made chocolate chip cookies provided; Bring your favourite beverage, curiosity, and a smile.

No time to sit in the Meadow? Any question, anytime:

Want to see reports from all the ASK Salt Spring gatherings?

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