About 168 people gathered at Bowring Park in St. John’s Monday evening for a vigil to remember those who lived and died in the Waterford Hospital, an antiquated and dilapidated building constructed in 1855, almost 100 years before Newfoundland joined Canada, that mental health advocates say amounts to an ongoing human rights abuse in the province in light of contemporary understandings of mental health and mental illness.
For more than four decades now, the provincial government has talked about and promised to build a new mental health facility based on current medical practices and better understood needs of those living with mental illness.
Last October Health Minister Steve Kent told The Independent the government was finally “moving forward with the replacement of the Waterford Hospital” and had recently announced the site selection—on the current hospital grounds—and was “issuing a tender to begin initial site preparation.”
Following a decade of unprecedented prosperity when the province generated upward of $20 billion in offshore oil revenues—much of which paid for infrastructure upgrades province-wide—as of this spring, at the hands of the Progressive Conservative government Newfoundland and Labrador was $13 billion in debt, with economic recovery contingent on global oil prices out of the control of Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans.
When the government delivered its 2015 budget on April 30, the money to build the new Waterford Hospital was nowhere to be found.
“This is the big business”
Organized by the Community Coalition for Mental Health (CC4MH), the product of a grassroots movement initiated by activist and NDP MHA Gerry Rogers and a host of community groups, “We are ALL in this TOGETHER” was held to highlight the fact that delaying the construction of the Waterford Hospital—and the new penitentiary, also intended to replace the antiquated and dilapidated Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s—will cause further suffering and deaths, since people living with mental illness in both institutions are not being provided the facilities and services conducive to recovery.
“Replacing the Waterford Hospital is not replacing a culvert or a road or a bridge,” CC4MH co-chair Mark Gruchy told the crowd at the Bowring Park amphitheatre Monday evening. “It is removing something from our culture which all agree must be removed that people are afraid of, because of all of the history and all of the pain and all of the infrastructural failings that simply cannot usher in the new era of mental healthcare that we need in this country and this province.
“And we can’t wait 10 years for it. There are too many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who need help now. There are too many people who need their dignity respected now. There are too many people who are already learning to be afraid of the whole idea of mental healthcare because [the Waterford] continues to exist. And nobody disagrees. So if no one disagrees, why is it still there? That is what I cannot understand.”
Members of all three provincial political parties spoke at the event, and all agreed the new Waterford needs to be built as soon as possible.
“We have to provide the resources,” said NDP leader Earle McCurdy. “We can’t wait 10 years to address this problem; it has to be done much more quickly than that.”
Liberal MHA and Service N.L. Critic Paul Lane said, “We need to put the infrastructure in place, we need to put the programs in place, we need to put the community supports in place, and we have to make sure that not one person in this province suffers alone. We have to make sure there are supports for everybody and we have to do it together.”
Service N.L. Minister Dan Crummell stood in for Health Minister Steve Kent, who was traveling outside the province, and said the government has spent “millions of dollars in looking at what needs to be done and how to move forward. And we will move forward. And whether we form the next government, or whether it’s the NDP or the Liberals, it’s the people here that are going to make that decision. It won’t be us because that decision has already been made.”
Crummell praised the all-party committee on mental health and addictions, formed last year after the CC4MH collected more than 1,000 signatures on a petition, which Rogers presented in the House of Assembly in December to a government that had resisted the idea but eventually conceded to the demand.
“The all-party committee on mental health and addictions [is] an important step forward,” Crummell said. “Province-wide consultations—our government’s committed to doing what’s right, and the other parties are as well. This should not be a political discussion; we should be moving forward together and we will move forward together.”
But mental health advocates and people living with mental illness who are afraid to enter the Waterford are skeptical of promises, which have not been met with action since 1971, when politicians first began speaking of the need to replace the hospital.
“What happens is at some point tough decisions get made and those decisions get made in a cost-benefit analysis, and if there is a group of people who appear small and vulnerable, guess who’s going to lose?” said Gruchy, who also served as President of the Canadian Mental Health Association N.L. for six years.
“This is about not being small and vulnerable anymore. This is about realizing that as sad as it is, and as ugly a part of human nature as it is, politics is not always about correction. Sometimes it’s about cost-benefit decisions. We have to ensure, not just now but in the…future…that there is a cost for failure to carry through with these things. We can’t just sit around and get beat up anymore by people who think, ‘that’s a really sad, tragic issue and it made me feel a little warm and fluffy inside,’ but you know, ‘on to the big business.’
“This is the big business,” he said.
Movement “historically unprecedented”
Gruchy pointed out the formation and continued existence of the CC4MH is “historically unprecedented” and that it needs as many people as possible if it is to grow and force the political will necessary to get the new Waterford Hospital and penitentiary built.
“These things operate essentially on belief, and if you believe that there is value in people being together in numbers and speaking and believing in these issues, you have to stay with us, you have to join if you haven’t already.”
The coalition brings together 200 members, including 30 community organizations which previously struggled independently to fill gaps in the healthcare system.
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While they all prioritize various services, the member groups agree the new Waterford needs to be built now.
The joint call is premised on the need to adopt and implement mental health services based on the ‘recovery model’, an approach to mental healthcare that “inherently recognizes the necessity of consent and personal empowerment and respect and the dignity of the person who is within that system,” Gruchy explained.
“The person who is receiving this service is the centre of what is happening — no one else is. And the new facility was supposed to bring that to life. And everyone agreed that it must be.”
Gruchy said the recovery model and the acknowledged need for a new mental health facility stem from the presupposition that “we are all human beings, that the people in the Waterford Hospital are human beings, and that the people who lived and died there in the past are human beings. And human beings come first.
“They already know that in other parts of the country,” he continued. “They already know that in places where they have recovery model-oriented facilities. They already know that in other provinces where the percentage of healthcare dollars is up to 7 and 8 per cent, whereas we hover between 5 and 6 [per cent] based on my calculations. The Mental Health Commission of Canada says it should be 10 [per cent].”
Stigma, colonialism, inequality and neglectful policies a big part of the problem
Speakers at Monday’s vigil explained how, while mental health and mental illness affect everyone, certain groups in society are more vulnerable than others.
“Horrible damage has been done to Aboriginal people over the years, with initial conquest and colonization, then to attempt assimilation in residential schools, and continuing now into present day in the foster care system, breaking families apart,” Amelia Reimer, a cultural support worker with the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre, told the crowd.
“Not all, but many Aboriginal people are taught by society to hate themselves. This creates lateral violence and causes Aboriginal communities to turn on themselves and be attacked from within, as well as from outside. The legacy of the residential schools and other such measures to ‘kill the Indian but spare the child’ is long-reaching. There have been institutional traumas occurring against Aboriginal communities for multiple generations,” she continued.
“All of these factors, and more, contribute to the mental health of Aboriginal communities. Statistics show Aboriginal people are consistently at higher risk in every one of our social ills, including being at increased risk of suicide or being murdered. This needs to be discussed and addressed whenever possible. This is not just an Aboriginal issue; humans have created this problem and we as human beings can be the solution. It is time to end the various stigmas and for all of us to come together for our parts in the healing process. To quote Chief Dan George, ‘There is a longing among all people and creatures to have a sense of purpose and worth. To satisfy that common longing in all of us, we must respect each other.”
Jamie MacWhirter, a Canadian soldier and Afghanistan veteran who lives with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), said returning to Canada and facing the stigma associated with mental illness has been one of his biggest challenges in dealing with his condition.
I didn’t think [anyone] could help me, my family didn’t understand, my friends didn’t understand, and I thought the world would be better off without me. — Jamie MacWhirter, veteran
“If someone has a broken leg you can…put a cast on it. But how do you tell someone you’re depressed, especially when you’re told to hide the pain, soldier on?” he said.
“So I tried to kill myself. The doctor told me he wanted me to take the pills — I took ‘em all, because I was sick of feeling that way. I didn’t know where to turn. I didn’t think [anyone] could help me, my family didn’t understand, my friends didn’t understand, and I thought the world would be better off without me.”
Now that he’s back in Newfoundland after a posting in Edmonton, MacWhirter said he has prioritized working with others living with PTSD and has formed a support group called PTSD Buddies that meets once a month in St. John’s.
“If the government is doing enough then why are people like me creating our own social groups to help each other out?” he said. “I know if I was a politician that is what I would do. I would listen to you people, see what the problem is and try to work on it.
“If you have PTSD and you have no one to talk to, I would love to talk to you — because you are going to help me just as much as I’m going to help you.”
NDP MP for St. John’s South—Mount Pearl Ryan Cleary highlighted the fact that 158 Canadians were killed in Afghanistan, including Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, but more than 160 have died by suicide since returning from war.
“I’ve repeated that number, that statistic, in the House of Commons many times in fighting for veterans…who are fighting post traumatic stress disorder like Jamie,” he said. “And I’ve repeated a quote: ‘If you can’t look after your veterans, don’t go to war.’”
Robert Leamon, Executive Director of External Affairs, Communications & Research for Memorial University Students’ Union (MUNSU), said post-secondary students are also particularly vulnerable to mental health problems and mental illness.
“People often romanticize the life of a poor student, recounting heroic tales of living in a dingy, run-down apartment and eating ramen noodles or K.D. because that’s all we can afford,” he said. “What gets left out is the fact that the pressure we place on students has serious implications on the mental health of our young people and the workforce of tomorrow.”
Leamon said a recent study at Memorial University (MUN) “found that 89.5 per cent of students felt overwhelmed, 34.4 per cent of students felt so depressed it was difficult to function, 56.7 per cent of students felt overwhelming anxiety, and 7.8 per cent of students seriously considered suicide.
“While these numbers are startling, it’s even more shocking when accompanied with the realization that these are real people’s lives, people we know and talk to every single day. But we have no idea how much they’re struggling just to stay afloat.”
Leamon said the survey revealed that the sources of students’ stresses included “academics, finances, career-related issues, personal lives and difficulties sleeping,” with the structure and state of today’s economy as an underlying source of their mental health struggle.
“If a student has to get an extra job just to keep up with their finances, their academics, personal lives and sleep schedule suffer as a result,” he said. “When taking courses, students are forced to choose programs based on what will allow them to pay off massive student loans faster after they graduate, instead of choosing what they are best qualified for, compounding the already high levels of stress students face.
“We have to stop valourizing this culture of struggle, which tells students, and others, to cope, instead of recognizing that it is our culture that needs to change for the sake of all of us. These struggles and challenges are not only faced by students, they are faced by other marginalized groups in our society whose class position leaves them situated in precarious and unsustainable situations. Low-wage precarious workers, racialized temporary immigrant workers, the unemployed and people with disabilities all face the double-bladed edge of mental stressors exacerbated by the experience of poverty and isolation. Our society has to do better.
“If there are systemic issues in our society that are leading to depression and suicide, it is our responsibility to identify these issues and find meaningful solutions to reduce loss and struggle in the future.”
“We are going to achieve things that…no one thinks that we can”
Tina Davies founded the Richard’s Legacy Foundation after losing her son to suicide.
She and others Monday evening stressed that suicide is preventable, and that “prevention is a shared responsibility where every person has the potential to make a difference and save a life. A suicide-safer community believes everyone has a fundamental right to have a future filled with hope and possibility.
“We need to develop action plans for suicide prevention, intervention and post-vention — post-vention meaning after the suicide,” she explained. “We need to recognize that suicide prevention rests on our ability to ask and talk about suicide, that these conversations be encouraged and met with compassion, not judgment, and informed responses.
Davies said she started the foundation in her son’s name because St. John’s needs a place “where people can go when they don’t feel safe with themselves — they can go there and they can talk to people and they could even stay there, have a bite to eat, and that kind of stuff. We need that, we need the human touch.
“Loss and human suffering are often at the very heart of social change; that’s why we’re here,” she said.
Gruchy emphasized the need to continue to grow the movement, particularly now that decision-makers have begun to pay attention.
“The danger, and what we must appreciate, is that the reason why we are where we are today is because finally we have begun to speak in the spirit of unity. We can’t split hairs anymore between the various fractures and fissures in the mental health community,” he said.
“We are all human beings who have been trying to help each other…and we all have the same cause and interest, and that is the preservation and protection of human dignity. And if we want, we could be a leader in this country and in the world with respect to the endorsement of the recovery model, and we have the jurisdictional power to give it the force of law if we want.
“We don’t have to sit back and let this slide along and be band-aided together over and over again by a handful of people in back-rooms. We have to demand that the province, under its constitutional jurisdiction to provide healthcare, provide it. And we can’t take any more excuses for it. It has to be done. It’s as simple as that.”
Before a moment of silence to remember those who have died in the Waterford, Gruchy’s CC4MH co-chair Meghan Barnhill invited anyone in the crowd to say out loud the names of loved ones they have lost.
Dozens of names were spoken.
“We can do advocacy, we can unite, we can recover as a community and we can move forward,” Barnhill said after the moment of silence. “And we are going to achieve things that no MHA, no MP, no one thinks that we can do.
“We’re going to have the Waterford at some point, and it’s coming soon. We’re going to get that prison, and we’re going to get everything that we need. We’re going to have services [and] the support will be in place for our mental health workers so they’re not being burnt out. We are going to make sure that we are a holistic community that is looking after everyone.
“We are going to be a community of the recovery model.”
Correction: The article previously stated there are 50 members in the CC4MH, when there are in fact 200. The article also estimated attendance at the vigil to be around 100. Organizers counted 168 people in attendance.