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June 14, 2005

Mental Housing Given Unwillingly

Independent living is one of the most important steps to full recovery after one has lived under supervised psychiatric care. It can be difficult to take that step when one has not had to take care of themselves for so long. On the other hand, many people who have lived in psychiatric hospitals recover and just need a little help to find housing and some support.

One mental health group has decided to take matters into their own hands and purchase an apartment complex for those who have a mental illness but are ready to live mostly independently. One of the new tenants is "Angel [who] is going to be one of the first tenants of 208 St. Andrew St., a four-storey apartment block the Shepherds bought in December with $3.1 million from Ontario's Health Ministry. The funds are meant to house 36 people with severe and persistent mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, who would otherwise likely be homeless. Many of them will also be recovering from the alcohol or drug addiction that frequently develops when a mentally ill person is attempting to treat undiagnosed illness on their own" (O'Neill, June 4, 2005).

The original plan was to use the apartment complex that was already filled with tenants gradually. As tenants left or their leases ended Sheperds' plan was to move people in one by one. But when the plan was announced to the current tenants they were not as enthusiastic about the project. It became a NIMBY campaign, or "Not In My Backyard". Most of the residents moved out which left plenty of space for Sheperds to move more of their patients into the apartment complex.

In a society in which mental illness is a stigma, it is not surprising that those in the apartment complex had some misgivings about the project. But the truth is that it would have been a gradual process and those who were going to be moved in were at the point where they were ready to live independently. Sheperds would not have supported the project if they did not think that it would have been a safe environment for their patients as well as the original tenants of the apartment complex. Everyone who has been moved in either has or does suffer from a debilitating mental illness, but they are at a point where they do not require supervision. This is quite a step up from living under the complete care of a mental health facility. But most people do not completely understand the difference and therefore assume that their apartment complex is going to become a psychiatric hospital.

On a more positive note, the apartment complex will now be able to house most of those with mental illness that want to build a new life there. The apartments are now being fixed up in anticipation of their new residents. "After the exodus at St. Andrew, Shepherds staff realized most units needed sprucing up. When bathroom tiles in one unit were removed for replacement, the mouldy wall behind it collapsed. The halls, painted lurid colours, needed toning down. The place now is buzzing with renovation activity, refinishing scuffed parquet floors, fitting the bathrooms with fans and new fixtures" (O'Neill, June 4, 2005).

Soon those with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder will be able to reside within the halls of 208 St. Andrews St.

For more information on bipolar advocacy go to: http://www.moodswing.org/advocacy.htm

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