Mental health experts say the B.C. government's plans to turn the former site of the Riverview psychiatric hospital into a mixed-use development with new mental health facilities is a small step in the right direction, but one that doesn't come close to meeting the growing need for mental health services.

On Thursday the province announced plans to add new mental health facilities, as well as social and market housing, to the Riverview site in Coquitlam, which has been sitting mostly empty since 2012. The development will create 17 new beds to treat people with severe mental illnesses.

But critics say the plan is only a drop in the bucket for those in the province who need mental health treatment.

"If you see the numbers in a report which was initiated by the Ministry of Health some time ago, they estimated 130,000 individuals in British Columbia with severe addiction and mental illness," said Michael Krausz, leadership chair for addictions research at UBC.

"So you can imagine, this is not really covering the whole range of needs."

B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake told CBC last week that a policy shift towards community-based care meant the days of locking up people with mental health issues and forcing treatment on them were over. 

He added the 17 new beds at Riverview would be in addition to another 14 new transition beds added there last year, as well as another 45 beds at Royal Columbian Hospital. 

"And that's combined with all the work that's being done by regional health authorities with assertive community treatment teams, with intensive case management teams," he told On the Coast host Stephen Quinn. 

'Emergency room visits are skyrocketing'

But Krausz said the lack of community and tertiary care for patients with mental illnesses mean many of them end up in the emergency room.

"If you look at what's happening in the downtown core in Vancouver's St. Paul's hospital, they have 10,000 emergency room visits per year related to mental health — and 1,400 acute mental health admissions. The majority are severe mental illnesses," he said.

"The emergency room visits are skyrocketing."

A backup plan

Krausz said while the Riverview plan does not meet the province's mental health care needs, it does provide some support for existing community programs.

People with mental health and addictions issues require more support to recover from regular physical ailments, Krausz explained. The proposed facilities at Riverview will provide that necessary support so that they can return to their communities, he said.

"You need both. You need a very good backup. The better the backup — that means tertiary care — the more you can do in the community."

To listen to the full audio, click the link labelled: Riverview plans don't meet mental health needs, says UBC researcher.