Advocates propose mixed-use mental-health 'village' on Riverview lands

The Riverview Village Intentional Community Society envisions a kind of wellness utopia on the Coquitlam site, where patients would live alongside non-patients.

Group says 'intentional community,' including market-price rentals, would help patients better re-integrate

The Riverview hospital in Coquitlam closed in 2012 after almost a century of use, and the future of the 244-acre site is still uncertain. (City of Coquitlam)

Herschel Hardin is hatching a plan for Coquitlam's coveted Riverview lands, and he says it's unlike anything ever tried before.

Hardin, a mental health activist, wants to create an "intentional community" on the grounds of the old Riverview Hospital, a kind of planned commune where patients with severe mental illnesses would live side by side with non-patients.

He, along with other members of the Riverview Village Intentional Community Society, envision a kind of wellness utopia replete with art centres, coffee shops and — they hope — market-price rental units for non-patients.

Members of the society met with Ministry of Housing officials last week to pitch the idea, Hardin said.

Herschel Hardin, right, and other members of the Riverview Village Intentional Community Society are proposing a new mental-health model for the public land in Coquitlam, which will house a new psychiatric hospital in 2019. (Supplied by Herschel Hardin)

The mixed community would benefit all its varied residents, providing "community integration and a real neighbourhood, a real village," he said.

Those with major depressive disorders or prone to psychotic episodes could rent subsidized units with doctors and nurses nearby, the society proposes, while non-patient residents would pay "whatever they can" to contribute to Riverview's upkeep.

The patients would get the support of a tight-knit community where they could work and spend time with friends and re-integrate with society.

Non-patients, meanwhile, would form bonds with neighbours they might not otherwise have met, Hardin says.

Current system 'doesn't engage' patients 

Hardin's son was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the 1970s and had several long stays at Riverview Hospital.

But after he was treated and released into the general population, Hardin noticed a new set of hurdles.

"Psychotic symptoms can be treated fairly quickly," Hardin said. "We're talking about delusions, hallucinations, over-thought disorder, that kind of stuff. That can be taken care of by antipsychotics."

Dozens of supporters rallied last year to support the reopening of a psychiatric facility at Riverview, but some advocates say this is prime time for innovation. (Bal Brach/CBC)

But once patients are discharged from hospital, "there's a whole set of other symptoms for which there isn't medication," Hardin said, suggesting social isolation, lack of motivation and cognitive difficulties all stem from a lack of community supports. 

The village model, he suggests, could take care of a lingering gap in the health system by creating a third option between long-term hospitalization and "scattered site housing," like some facilities that exist in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, by allowing patients to integrate with the community from the outset.

"Discharging them from a hospital and putting them in an apartment somewhere doesn't really engage them," Hardin said.

Hardin points to similar experiments around the world, including one in Geel, Belgium, where a care system dating back to the 13th century sees patients living with foster families and engaging with society as a whole.

Riverview Hospital was downsized over the course of a decade in favour of locating mental health services in the community, a strategy that met with mixed success. (City of Coquitlam)

Riverview's future still in the air

A new facility on the Riverview lands is slated to replace the aging Burnaby Centre for Mental Health and Addiction, which can treat 94 patients. Last year the NDP government promised a $101-million replacement by 2019, with the promise to add 11 extra beds.

A number of stakeholders besides the patients, including environmentalists, conservationists and mental health nurses, are all petitioning the province as it develops its "master plan" for the 244-acre Riverview site.

The ministry confirmed with CBC News that Housing Minister Selina Robinson has met with a number of stakeholders and groups concerned about Riverview's future, including a meeting last week with the ​village society.

'We don't need it,' says nurse

Psychiatric nurse Christina Gower says she's been lobbying for years to have Riverview expanded for what she says are pressing needs — and last on her list of priorities is market-rate rentals for the healthy.

"We don't need it," Gower said. "What we need is other things: the long-term care homes, the transition homes, the dementia village, the chronic pain research treatment, PTSD research and treatment."

But Hardin says the village society takes a holistic rather than clinical approach to mental wellness.

"This isn't just another community, another neighbourhood. It exists to welcome, integrate, support and help those with a particular disability," she said, making Riverview a place "where they can blossom."

About the Author

Malone Mullin

Associate Producer

Malone Mullin is a digital journalist at CBC Toronto and CBC Vancouver. She's a former features intern with CBC's national desk and a grad student at the University of British Columbia.