By Published On: August 1st, 20078 Comments

The decision to close Laurel House by October is, simply, bizarre.

Victoria’s last remaining drop-in, education and training centre for people diagnosed with mental illnesses is a rare success story (see June’s Focus) in a beleaguered system. While the Eric Martin psychiatric hospital and Archie Courtnall Centre endure psychiatrist resignations, and while police-backed psychiatric emergency responders are greeted with fear as often as gratefulness, Laurel House’s voluntary options for leisure, peer networking, skills development, and just being oneself in a therapeutic atmosphere stand out as popular amongst both front-line workers and consumers alike. There’s no better evidence of this than the support emerging in city media coverage and letters to the editor.

Kathleen Sumilas voices the sentiments of many clients when she says, “Laurel House saved my life.”

So why have the Vancouver Island Health Authority, the funders, and the Capital Mental Health Association, the independent organization running Laurel House, recently blindsided everyone with this announcement? Yes, new programs will run from CMHA’s offices and around the city. However, everyone recognizes our lack of community supports for people diagnosed with mental illnesses has contributed dramatically to other problems like suicides, homelessness and emergency room line-ups, so why axe our most successful program?!

The answers have been dubious.

Laurel House is scientifically “outdated”, wrote VIHA CEO Howard Waldner to the Victoria Times-Colonist.

A UBC psychiatric rehabilitation specialist corrected Waldner, noting formal evaluations show Laurel House is extremely progressive.

The “decision to shift the programming”, Waldner also stated, “rests with CMHA”.

However, in a tense meeting, CMHA executive director Liam McEnery told Laurel House members the closure was “non-negotiable” and forced on CMHA by VIHA.

Conversely, Alan Campbell, director of VIHA’s adult mental health division, told me the decision had been mutually arrived at after months of strategizing with CMHA about improving job placement and youth outreach.

When I immediately thereafter asked McEnery who or what had really motivated the changes, his first response was, “What did Alan say?” He, too, then insisted it was all about improving services.

Later, under intense questioning at another meeting with Laurel House members, McEnery suggested high maintenance costs drove a “shared” decision.

Certainly, in today’s market, public services abruptly vacating two beautiful, donated heritage buildings near an upscale Rockland neighbourhood appears suspect.

In any case, what’s most exasperating to Laurel House members is that they were never even consulted. Indeed, no mental health consumers were. And since CMHA gets two-thirds of VIHA’s contract funding for area rehabilitation services, that means our community’s mental health rehabilitation system has just undergone extensive restructuring without any consultations with the people these organizations are professing to help. Further, CMHA executives have deeply hurt most Laurel House users, leaving them frightened and distraught about losing what is partly their second home, family and social life. Many clients also feel viciously undermined because, after working for years developing progressive policies, practices and relationships amongst themselves, staff and volunteers, they rightly feel a sense of prideful “ownership”, too.

Shouldn’t they have been consulted? “That would be the role of the CMHA,” replies VIHA’s Campbell.

McEnery grudgingly concedes, “That’s what we’re trying to do now.”

With Laurel House already closing, now is too late.

Both men know better. Our provincial health ministry’s “Best Practices in Mental Health” guides include a 42-page volume promoting consumer empowerment in mental health system planning. It emphasizes that mental health consumers must be given “meaningful involvement” in “democratic decision-making processes that value and actively include” their opinions. Indeed, every volume begins with an “Important Note” recognizing such consumer involvement as the foundation of modern psychosocial rehabilitation. CMHA’s professional accreditation also recognizes consumer empowerment as crucial.

And it makes sense. Imagine a group developing plans to “improve” social conditions for Aboriginal women, yet this group deliberately excluded all Aboriginal women from the discussions!

Both CMHA and VIHA had a responsibility to ensure consumers were meaningfully consulted. Instead, they’ve hacked the heart out of Laurel House, and now show little awareness of how hugely and inexcusably they’ve blundered. Campbell and Waldner have been misleading and evasive, and McEnery has been less apologetic than self-admittedly “angry”–angry with the negative media coverage, angry with the protests, and angry that few understand his grander vision.

VIHA and CMHA should mutually agree to keep Laurel House open, and then invite diverse consumers into discussions about its future and improving community services. They should encourage the Laurel House users’ fundraising campaign.

Nothing prevents this. But sadly, unilaterally closing Laurel House is symptomatic of a systemic problem.

Our health authority long ago axed its own mental health consumer advisory board, and only recently reinstated it in token fashion. They pulled funding from this city’s only consumer-run support centre. And, as strong supporters of pharmaceuticals, the CMHA and BC Schizophrenia Society (the only other prominent group supporting Laurel House’s closure) have lobbied against strengthening the legal rights of involuntary patients to opt for non-drug treatments.

Basically, despite noble philosophies on paper, there are frequently strong divisions between the people who use mental health services and the mental health professionals who typically run them. And the professionals don’t often willingly cede their powers.

Sumilas sums up the Laurel House situation: “I get the sense they think, ‘We know what’s good for you.'”

That’s why it’s the responsibility of all of us to ensure public money for serving people diagnosed with mental illnesses really does serve them, instead of serving agencies with their own agendas.

Contact Kathleen Sumilas and the group trying to save Laurel House in Victoria at 250-383-9693 or nova_agape at yahoo dot ca
Originally published in Focus magazine, August 2007.


  1. bev honold December 10, 2007 at 12:22 am

    I a member of Laurel House and would wish it remain as a resourse-but in a drop-in centre sort of format and have hours not to suit the minders there ())9;00 to 4:oo business hours do not suggest really a place which would be any fun. If there are any dev.,I will be there to add my voice.

    well educated and intelligent,and enjoy being crazy without my medications but thats another story.would enjoy a chat.feel ACT to be horrifying.In fact I’m terrified for the kids.

  2. rob December 12, 2007 at 11:15 pm

    Hi Bev, thanks for your comments. I’m hoping the best for Laurel House but the negotiations so far I’ve heard about aren’t making me optimistic. I think it’s important that people like yourself speak up about ACT, which is coming like a freight train to Victoria. By the way, my email address is rob at robwipond with a dot com on the end if you want to chat.

  3. bev honold December 18, 2007 at 1:25 am

    Thanks so much Rob.It is my wish that there would be more persons like you out there.

    Bev H

  4. bev honold December 20, 2007 at 12:11 am

    I visited Laurel House At 3:30 today Dec. 9 with a Xmas small treat for Kathleen,such a guru there.If we could all be as lovely.

    The house was closed and people are beginning to put sad little flower offerings like people do at accident deaths.

    I wonder how many people remember Kathleen in this time of peace and joy..

  5. bev honold January 7, 2008 at 1:37 am

    Hi Rob,

    News is that the decision is still open about Laurel House.Any advocacy for the house as social support would possibly be effective.The contact person is Kelly Reid at VIHA,but will she talk?People have until March before a decision is made.A quote from the TC “all possibilities are on the table”.

  6. paul phillips February 26, 2008 at 11:14 pm

    Hi Rob
    We’ve formed a Trust—Spring Ridge-Fernwood Community Housing Land Trust.We are already housing low income people of all ages.
    Some of us in this neighbourhood think it might
    be a good idea to talk to both VIHA/CMHA and see if we could take over the services being run out of Laurel House and also house people
    Reason I’m witing you is to find out if you know
    a)when the property was acquired
    b)from whom
    d)were any conditions as to future use placed on CMHA.
    As I see it CMHA is governed by the Society Act
    and although there are enough loopholes in it to slide Asia through it,maybe it’s one small gleam of hope.
    Always enjoy your columns,good work.
    Thanks for any help you can give us,Paul

  7. rob February 27, 2008 at 1:28 am

    Hi Paul, thanks for your comments. I do know the answers to some of your questions. Yes, there are conditions and interesting ones at that, which at a meeting we discovered current CMHA leaders weren’t even aware of. But I came by those answers thanks to the research of Kathleen Sumilas and others working for Laurel House, so I feel I should leave it to them to tell you, I don’t have the documentation here myself. It might be worth you and Kathleen having a chat. Her email and phone are posted at the end of the original article. Good luck!

  8. bev honold April 5, 2008 at 9:45 pm

    March 18,the day before the supposed closure very very good news arrived that LH ,1452 Elford Street will remain in the hands that the donors.Rotary INT intended.As the new situation unfolds there is some nervousness whether Nurse Terry,our much beloved manager’s job will survive the changes.As I see it his presence there at the house is essential for a number of reasons.

    Hi Rob,


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