Don’t Reframe a Housing Crisis as a Mental Health Crisis


“It is unacceptable for this municipality to create a housing crisis and then reframe it as a mental health crisis,” writes the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) in The Mainlander, in a response to a government and police plan to boost funding to police and Assertive Community Treatment mental health teams in Vancouver, British Columbia. VANDU also accuses government of using “sensationalized images of violence” to sway the public and describes the term “mental illness” as an overly simplistic generalization.

In their open letter, VANDU criticizes the process that led to the government report, its resulting analyses, and its proposals. Some excerpts:

“The report put forward graphic images and anecdotes portraying people with mental illness as a ‘threat’ to the public. The document 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.'”

VANDU describes such perspectives as “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.”

“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,” continues VANDU. “Yet it is the police, rather than the people most affected, who continue to be empowered in today’s political climate.”

VANDU also argues that the whole concept of there being a “mental health crisis” in Vancouver is a misleading and counter-productive approach. “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’s open letter on the mental health emergency in Vancouver (The Mainlander, September 19, 2014)