B.C. centre at forefront of treating mental health and addiction together

Addiction and mental illness often occur together but treating them together is so complex

Sitting on a dark brown leather couch, Lisa Balkwill’s hands are knotted together on her lap. Her brown hair is tied in a bun, under a bedazzled black hat that matches her sweater, pinned by an angel brooch.

From across the room, Balkwill looks out through the barred window into the front parking lot of the Burnaby Centre for Mental Health and Addiction.

When asked about herself, the 33-year-old doesn’t hesitate: “I was young and got into an abusive relationship and started using cocaine.”

It’s not uncommon for people recovering from substance use disorder to describe themselves using their addiction.

Balkwill is one of 94 patients at the centre, who all must have a severe, chronic mental-health issue as well as a substance-use issue to be admitted.

For Balkwill, it’s psychosis. “I get visions and voices… Yeah, it’s scary.”

Growing up in the Cowichan Valley and Nanaimo, Balkwill started using cocaine in high school, but when the drug proved hard to find and too expensive, she escalated to crystal meth.

She managed to still graduate at the age of 20, around the time she starting seeing the visions and hearing the voices.

At one point, Balkwill had agreed to seek treatment with the support of her father, but the facility was unable to help her with her psychosis.

“I tried one other place, but they didn’t facilitate treatment for addiction as well as mental health,” she said.

Balkwill relapsed shortly after, using drugs in secret until a psychotic episode put her in the hospital.

“When you are keeping it a secret, it’s shameful,” she said. “I got discharged from the hospital and continued using, and then we found this place.”

READ MORE: There have been 1,380 overdose deaths in B.C. this year: Coroner

READ MORE: Opioid crisis may be shortening British Columbians’ life expectancy

Doctor has hopes of centre expanding locally and regionally

The centre stands out across the province as one of the only facilities to offer care for severe mental health and addiction in tandem.

Mental health director Dr. Vijay Seethapathy told Black Press Media that addiction and mental illness very often occur together, and even engage the same part of the brain, but treating them together is so complex that many facilities simply don’t.

LISTEN IN: Click here to hear Dr. Seethapathy explain how a patient transitions out of care

But treating only one of the disorders doesn’t work, Seethapathy said, as one often exacerbates the other.

Lisa Balkwill, 33, plans to move back to Nanaimo after she finishes her program at the Burnaby Centre for Mental Health and Addiction. (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)

“When people have one condition, the other occurs in an average of about 30 per cent of cases,” he explained.

“They are kind of closely linked with each other, and there are several of the factors that lead people to having mental health problems that also lead people to getting into the severe substance-use problems.

“For example, people with trauma can have a severe difficulty with coping. … On the other hand, the only way many of them cope is by using substances.”

Since opening in 2008, the centre has offered programs ranging from one to nine months, or longer depending on the severity of the patient’s situation.

LISTEN IN: Click here to hear Dr. Seethapathy discuss a client’s struggle with PTSD and alcoholism

The team involves a case worker, who acts as the key contact overlooking the care plan from beginning to discharge, a medical team that acts as an advocate, and a care team that helps the patient transition back into their community.

The aging facility is slated to move to the Riverview lands in Coquitlam, with 11 more beds. Seethapathy said he hopes to see the program expand further across B.C.

READ MORE: New in-depth report sheds light on who in BC is dying of drug overdoses

READ MORE: Most fatal overdose victims did not have recent police contact, Stats Canada data shows

“It’s really, really important for us to continue to double up, continue to train and educate, and increase capacity and skills so that we can target clients suffering from mental health and addiction locally, regionally and when they need specialized care at the Burnaby centre.”

Centre mixes group, art therapy and more

Art classes, music therapy and exercise classes are a few facets of the program Balkwill has come to enjoy.

“I can tell you when I first came here I didn’t think it would work, because I was coming here for all the wrong reasons. I was coming here to please my father,” Balkwill said.

“But every day that went by, it became more and more about myself. And I notice now a big difference in my mental health.”

Balkwill is in her eighth month of the program, which includes daily group meetings and one-on-one sessions with doctors and medical staff.

Lisa Balkwill is at the Burnaby Centre for Mental Health and Addiction following a psychosis event that ended with her in the hospital. She is now in month eight of her program. (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)

“We have all kinds of groups. Some are based on recovery or relapse prevention,” she said. “I do boot camp. It gives me a big sense of pride.”

Once she is ready to leave, she will be backed by a support team as she tests her sobriety in the place she feels most at home: Nanaimo. Her plan is to enter transitional housing.

But until that time comes, Balkwill is dreaming and setting goals for the future. She hopes to one day become a trades teacher.

“I plan on going back to do more school,” she said. “I fell in love with carpentry when I was in high school. It’s my passion.”


@ashwadhwani
ashley.wadhwani@bpdigital.ca

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

<em>Black Press file photo</em>
Clare’s Corner: Giving thanks despite the negatives

Thanksgiving may have passed, but it’s never too late to count your blessings

<em>Black Press file photo</em>
Police look for vehicle after dangerous driving incident

The driver was speeding and failed to pull over for police

Rio Tinto Alcan’s aluminum smelter at Kitimat competes against producers in the Middle East and Russia that have no carbon tax. (Rio Tinto)
B.C. carbon tax highest in Canada, export industries unprotected

B.C. NDP, B.C. Liberals say they’re looking at exemptions

Keep a lookout for monsters around Kitimat during the week leading up to Halloween. (Black Press file photo)
Lions and tigers and…monsters? Oh my!

Find monsters hiding around town during the week leading up to Halloween to be entered for a prize

Liz Thorne is president of the Snow Valley Ski Club, and has been involved with the club and cross country skiing for over 30 years. (Clare Rayment)
In Our Valley: Liz Thorne

Thorne has been involved with the Snow Valley Ski Club for over 30 years

Actor Ryan Reynolds surprised a Shuswap family with a special birthday message to their son who was worried he’d be alone on his 9th birthday on Nov. 24. (Tiffanie Trudell/Facebook)
Ryan Reynolds text almost gives away Shuswap boy’s birthday surprise

Deadpool actor helps remind eight-year-old Canoe resident he’s not alone

Vancouver police reactivated the search for Jordan Naterer Thursday Oct. 22. Photo courtesy of VPD.
Mom of missing Manning Park hiker believes her son is waiting to come home

‘He’s going to come out of a helicopter and say ‘what took you so long?”

Environment Minister George Heyman, Premier John Horgan and Energy Minister Michelle Mungall announce that B.C. Hydro is proceeding with construction of the Site C dam, Dec. 11, 2017. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)
Site C actions, costs won’t be known until after B.C. election, Horgan says

Peace River diverted for construction of reinforced dam base

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

One of the squirrels who ended up having their tails amputated after getting them stuck together with tree sap. (Facebook/Wild ARC)
Squirrels recovering from tail amputation after sap situation near Victoria

BC SPCA Wild ARC says squirrels will be released back into wild, fifth sibling was euthanized

More and more electric cars are on the road, but one Chevy Bolt owner was shocked to see how much his BC Hydro bill skyrocketed once he started charging the vehicle. (Black Press file photo)
Lower Mainland man sees significant spike in BC Hydro bill after buying electrical vehicle

An increase should be expected, but Brian Chwiendacz experienced a 200-plus per cent hike

The Anonymous YVR is an Instagram page that reviews restaurants and other establishments around B.C. based on how well they adhere to COVID-19 rules. (Instagram)
Anonymous Instagram page reviews COVID-19 safety measures at B.C. businesses

There are a number of public health orders various types of establishments must follow to slow virus’s spread

Most Read