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Coming out of the dark at last

"The Family Support Centre, operated by the North Shore Schizophrenia Society, serves families coping with all serious mental illnesses including depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and borderline personality disorder, as well as schizoph

"The Family Support Centre, operated by the North Shore Schizophrenia Society, serves families coping with all serious mental illnesses including depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and borderline personality disorder, as well as schizophrenia."

NSSS news release, April 25, 2013

LAST week, the North Shore Schizophrenia Society announced the group's first ever Responsiveness to Families award ceremony, to be held this Friday at 1 p.m. in the Family Support Centre, 865 Marine Drive, West Vancouver.

Executive director Cheryl Olney says the award "was created to honour the contribution of service providers who recognize the crucial role families play in ensuring people with serious mental illnesses receive the treatment and care they need."

The society's work adds an important dimension to many other initiatives aimed at improving access to care - not only on the North Shore but for an estimated 800,000 British Columbians who have some form of mental illness.

Locally, the first inkling that the decrepit psychiatric facilities at Lions Gate Hospital were to be replaced came in May, 2011 when the provincial government announced it had committed $38-million toward the cost of a new mental health wing, and that the Lions Gate Hospital Foundation had undertaken a fund-raising campaign for the $24-million balance.

That was not the only good news for those in the Lower Mainland who suffer from mental illnesses and/or addiction.

In November 2010, spurred on by a $12 million donation from Vancouver philanthropists Joseph and Rosalie Segal, the province undertook to fund 70 per cent of a new $82 million Mental Health Centre at Vancouver General Hospital.

As she announced the $57 million provincial contribution, Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid called the Segals' donation to the VGH-UBC Hospital Foundation "one of the largest-ever personal gifts for mental health in Canada's history."

Then, in May 2011, came word that West Vancouver businessman Robert Ho and his wife Greta had donated an equally startling $10 million to the LGH foundation, to fund a combined 26-bed inpatient and educational facility that will carry their name.

Ho clearly understood the symbolic significance of his family's gift when he said Asian people are superstitious and often find it difficult to acknowledge mental illness.

Added to continuing donations from supporters throughout B.C., those gifts mean that the fund-raising efforts of both foundations are within striking distance of the finish line.

What they also mean is that, after centuries of condemning mentally ill people to the shadows of stigma and isolation, our society is at last recognizing depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other conditions for what they are - serious illnesses in need of treatment and compassionate care.

As Segal said to Vancouver Sun journalist Pamela Fayerman on Nov. 18, 2010, "It's not sexy to fund, but mental illness crosses all boundaries. It doesn't just affect people on the Downtown Eastside."

To which North Shore resident Jon McComb might have murmured a thankful, "Amen."

Host of CKNW's The World Today afternoon show, McComb has wrestled with depression for most of his life.

He knows what it's like to resist any thought of seeking professional help to conquer the symptoms. Instead, as so many people do, he often turned to alcohol to assuage the persistent feelings of frustration, anger and unexplainable hopelessness.

Tireless now in his efforts to raise awareness of mental illness and to assist in the VGH-UBC campaign, he says it was only after acknowledging his illness that he felt the unexpected relief that accompanies "going public."

McComb's public stance took courage. In the not-so-distant past, such a move could have put relationships at risk and his job on the line.

Just like his family and friends, "The people at 'NW were unbelievably supportive," he said.

"When I explained why my doctor recommended a six-month leave of absence, they said "We understand; take as much time as you need."

What a giant leap that attitude is for mankind.

Generations of us who remember "the old days" either grew up being scared of people who were overtly mentally ill, or poked fun at conditions we did not understand.

My own high school building, well over a century old, had served time as a "mental asylum" - the common designation of the times.

Kids being kids, I and my classmates still weathered the unkind jokes that resulted.

Is it any wonder it has taken until the 21st century for society to reach the CKNW level of understanding?

During his funding announcement, Segal told assembled medical professionals his family hasn't experienced mental illness. Nevertheless, he expressed an innate understanding of a world so familiar to McComb and to one in five Canadians: "When people walk around with a heart problem, they walk a little slower," he said.

"When they walk around with cancer, they walk around in pain. "When you walk around with mental (illness), you walk around alone."

Perhaps the desperation of "walking alone" accounts, in part, for the 10,000 suicides McComb cites in his 'NW fundraising promotions for the VGH-UBC Mental Health Centre (givetomentalhealth.ca).

In praise of the 1990 book Madness in the Streets, by Rael-Jean Isaac and Virginia C. Armat, then New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, "We had hoped for a system of therapeutic programs known as community mental health centres. In the end, however, we built only a fraction of what we needed."

With the help of compassionate provincial decisions and of benefactors like the Hos, the Segals, the North Shore Schizophrenia Society and others, we can be thankful B.C. is now leading the way into the light at the end of our own dark tunnels of mental illness.

rimco@shaw.ca

Learn more about the North Shore Schizophrenia Society at northshoreschizophrenia.org.

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