VANDU’s open letter on the mental health emergency in Vancouver


Earlier this week the Mayor and city council voted to approve the recommendations of the Mental Health and Addictions Task Force. At the public hearing, several VANDU members spoke against the city’s emerging police-led approach to mental health in the Downtown Eastside and city-wide. The following is an open letter issued by the VANDU Tuesday Education Group.

The Mayor of Vancouver and Chief of Police have recently declared a mental health crisis in Vancouver. In response to this perceived crisis, the Mayor and council voted in October 2013 to create a Task Force on Mental Health and Addictions.

As a group of observers and participants in the Task Force, we are writing this letter to express our deep concern about the process, and about the larger implications of a declared “mental health crisis” in Vancouver. We would like to speak openly about the direction of the city’s mental health campaign, and about the larger trends within our city which exacerbate the problems a Task Force might seek to resolve.

To mark the launch of the city’s mental health campaign this past fall, the Mayor and Chief released Vancouver’s Mental Health Crisis: An Update Report (September 2013). The report put forward graphic images and anecdotes portraying people with mental illness as a “threat” to the public. might have been a chance to address complex issues facing the one in five Canadians who will personally experience a mental illness each year, including systematic barriers to support, housing and health services. But this opportunity to communicate to a broader public, and in particular the opportunity to emphasize the socio-economic determinants of mental health, was replaced with sensationalized images of violence and deteriorating public safety, with unfounded assertions by the Mayor that mentally ill individuals are “endangering the lives of innocent victims of random attacks.”

These initial statements established a tainted foundation and a stigmatizing framework within which we are now forced to work as advocates, community organizers, and individuals facing mental health and addictions issues. From the outset we therefore questioned the motivations of this project and its stated goal of embarking on a path to address questions on behalf of – rather than alongside – our communities.

The city has taken the Vancouver Police Department as its primary partner in the long process of addressing overlapping mental health and addictions issues in our community. From the perspective of our lived-experience, however, a police-based approach to social problems can only worsen the crisis. The central role given to the police in this process will only entrench the problematic stereotyping and criminalization of marginalized people – people who need real community supports and real economic and social empowerment. Yet it is the police, rather than the people most affected, who continue to be empowered in today’s political climate.

Since 2008 the annual budget of the Vancouver Police Department has increased from $180m to $235m. These additional resources have been used, regrettably and tragically, to exacerbate the crisis already faced by marginalized populations in Vancouver. Under the guise of scholarly, NGO, and expert opinions advanced by members of the Task Force, the city is now giving the OK to increased funding for a police presence on mental health ACT teams. But we do not need more police doing the role of the social worker. What we need is social supports and an end to the socio-economic crisis faced by the marginalized people who enrich our city and make it the diverse place that it is today.

The Mayor has framed mentally ill individuals as a “serious” threat to the public. And yet the VPD’s own statistics show that people with mental illness are 15 times more likely to be the victim of crime and 23 times more likely to be a victim of violent crime than people without mental illness. Regrettably the same cannot be said for the VPD itself, who have repeatedly killed individuals with perceived mental illness in Vancouver. It is difficult for us to understand the Mayor’s statement that people with mental illness are “endangering the lives of innocent victims of random attacks.” Paul Boyd was disarmed and crawling on his knees when officers shot a bullet through the top of his head. Again in 2012 there were two fatal police shootings of perceived mentally ill individuals within a block of the intersection at Powell and Gore streets. Police seized the phones of eye-witnesses and there have been no charges laid. As with the shooting of Paul Boyd, the officers have been exonerated. Random VPD attacks on visibly marginalized people, like Sandy Davidsen in 2010, have gone completely unpunished. We feel that the mental health crisis is now used as a back-door means to continue the punitive criminalization and incarceration of targeted populations. Among other trends, we note that Section 28 Mental Health Act apprehensions have increased by 16% between 2010 and 2012 alone. Recent statistics show an even greater increase in daily apprehensions.

A shift in government  priorities would mark a first step in addressing the mental health challenges we face. In particular we envision real moves in the direction of de-funding the police arm of the State and start funding real housing and social supports – for people’s empowerment rather than people’s oppression.

A recent Canada-wide study has established that housing is most cost-effective treatment for mental illness. Our municipal government has full powers over the housing market – through zoning by-laws, area plans, permitting restrictions, the Property Endowment Fund, development levies and other housing regulations. It is unacceptable for the municipal government to fail to use those powers, and to then blame the victims of its own failed policies. How can we address the stigmatization, discrimination, evictions, sexual violence, other forms of violence, that many people with mental health issues and concurrent disorders are subject to on a regular basis in Vancouver? These should be areas of concern, and yet the City of Vancouver continues its ruthless gentrification agenda, most recently in the DTES neighborhood, with a Local Area Plan that puts the housing of marginalized people on the chopping block.

It is unacceptable for this municipality to create a housing crisis and then reframe it as a mental health crisis.

The framework of the Task Force labels “mental health” and “addictions” with vague and carelessly overlapping terminology, with little nuance or regard for the actual complexity embedded at multiple levels of the social and political system. The Task Force seems to make no genuine effort to separate issues, and so the goal seems to be to trade on the SAMI label (“Severe Addictions and Mental Illness”), aimed at visibly stigmatized populations in Metro Vancouver. Instead of taking the opportunity to highlight how common and frequent it is for people to experience mental illness in our current society, the Task Force has isolated a handful of violent incidents, ignoring the systemic difficulties people with mental health issues face in accessing services, housing and supports.

Despite bringing “addictions” into a Task Force on mental health, scarcely little has been said or done to advance the issue. The Four Pillars approach in Vancouver was once promising but has never been implemented in practice. Now the city’s own support for aggressive, innovative harm reduction is at an all time low. Where Vancouver was once positioned as a leader in the North American and international fight to end prohibition, it’s now falling for the mistakes of the failed war on drugs – with no exit strategy in sight. When it comes to essential harm reduction and treatment services, for example, the situation has only deteriorated. Since launching the Task Force, the City of Vancouver and VPD have pressured the regional health authority, Vancouver Coastal Health, to reduce their already diminished support for essential harm reduction services in Vancouver, including the forced closure of a successful safe injection site run by the Vancouver Area Network of Users.

We are writing this letter not as mental health professionals or well-paid politicians, but as people who feel the pressure of a system that marginalizes us on a daily basis. We experience intersecting oppressions that extend far beyond simple questions of personal health, as the terms “mental health” and “addictions” too often imply. The mental health crisis, if it can be called that, is not for medical professionals or psychiatrists to resolve. It is for us alone to make the change we want to see in the world.

–VANDU Tuesday Education Group
Wednesday, September 17th, 2014