Monday, November 18, 2013

Insanity in British Columbia - where do you fit in?

Mental healthcare in BC got of to what might at best be called a shaky start. Here's short account of the first reported incident relating to mental health in this, the most beautiful of Canadian provinces.

In 1850 British Columbia recorded its first case of insanity. A Scottish migrant who had recently arrived on a ship, assaulted Dr. John Helmcken, the local doctor at the jail in Victoria.
From 2.bp.blogspot.comThere is something wholly unsurprising about a Scotsman getting off a ship and promptly hitting someone. This may be a sad comment on my own deep seated prejudices, but the fact remains. I like Scottish people. I even like bagpipes. I used to spend every Christmas on the Isle Of Skye. As a result I can picture the scene with crystal clarity.
A man stumbles down a gangplank onto the quay in Victoria harbor.
He turns to a stranger, and says,”Fok, mahn, where the heel am aye?”
A helpful passer-by says,“Canada.”
“Wha?” says the new arrival and then punches him in the face.
It didn’t happen quite like that, but you get the general idea.
The response to this was to place the Scot on a ship straight back to Scotland, where it was suggested he may feel more at home. Whether it was felt he would be more at home among the Scots because he was insane, aggressive and belligerent, or just Scottish is not clear. Either way the approach was effective. Anyone who has seen Glasgow on a Saturday night after a Rangers and Celtic game would understand that all three groups would find Scotland the natural place to settle down.
Oddly enough the man he assaulted, Dr. Helmcken, went on to play a leading role in that other stronghold of insanity – politics. He represented Esquimalt and was elected Speaker, in the first House Assembly of Vancouver Island. He later became the first president of the BC Medical Association. One might say that mental health was set on a collision course with orthodox medicine from its earliest roots in BC.
Insanity in BC then appears to have been totally eradicated (according to the history books) until when in 1864 an infirmary for women was opened in Victoria, and included a small section for ‘female lunatics’. A handful of women were accommodated.
In 1873 Victoria stepped down as the capital for mental health, and The Provincial Asylum For The Insane was established in New Westminster. A Victoria asylum was closed and its 36 residents rehoused in New West. It was probably felt that with the governmental seat becoming established in Victoria, the local quota of lunatics was quite high enough.
New Westminster then began its long domination of the mental health scene. The hospital was renamed ‘The Provincial Hospital For The Insane’ (a catchy name, if ever I heard one) in 1897, and by 1899 the population had already grown to over 300. Chief among the causes of ‘insanity’ psychiatric literature listed ‘heredity, intemperance, syphilis and masturbation.’
Housed along with the patients were physically disabled children. There were reports of overcrowding and inadequate care; mental health in BC was probably on par with what it was at the time in most parts of the western world.
There were times when mental healthcare in New Westminster was considered very advanced. The development of Riverview (earlier named Essondale) came on the scene in the 1930’s and Coquitlam began to take over. In New West a large asylum named Woodlands stood overlooking the Fraser for many years, and was recently torn down. It has been replaced by some very modern apartments and town homes, all located within a stones throw of Memorial Gardens. The residents seem oblivious to the history of the area, and the fact that they are living by a series of graves which are the final resting place of numerous mental patients who died in the hospital, and their remains went unclaimed. It struck me as being the kind of thing one may want to know about, before buying the half million dollar properties.
Right from the time our Scottish friend slugged Dr. Helmcken in the teeth, mental health care in BC has been on a collision course with the medical establishment. Both poor relation and ugly sister, this branch of the family of health care in British Columbia has been underfunded, poorly staffed and largely misunderstood. One friend commented to me that the seeds of East Hastings denial were sown on that fateful day in 1850. Bummer.
Extract of The Devils Hypnotist by Rob Hadley