The head of the Stella Burry Foundation admires a family who broke silence over a recent suicide and acknowledges inadequate housing options remain a stumbling block in overcoming mental illness.
“One of the things I was really struck with was the family’s decision to tell Tony’s story,” executive director Jocelyn Greene said of Jennifer Power Scott’s decision to go public about her brother, Tony Power.
The quiet, gifted artist, who suffered from schizophrenia, died of an apparent suicide after drowning in St. John’s harbour in March. The Telegram recently told his story.
“Every story that’s told of somebody that clearly was a talented, loved individual with great capacity but who couldn’t find any way out lifts up for somebody else to maybe reach out and say, ‘I want to talk about this, too.’ That takes great courage. I was really touched,” Greene said.
Although she doesn’t blame the mental health system entirely for his death, Power Scott said it broke down for her brother when he was placed in public housing with a roommate after moving to St. John’s from Grand Falls-Windsor and spending some time in a staffed transitional house.
She said there are not enough supports in the community to help people cope independently.
Adequate, supportive housing is crucial to helping people stay well, Greene said.
“There is no question if people have access to supports they are far more likely to maintain their housing, to work through a depressive episode, an acute episode of mental illness,” Greene said.
“There are still a lot of people in hospital who could be released. We have an extraordinary number of people with mental health issues in our prisons. … We are really in a slog right now with the lack of housing spaces. We could empty them and fill them again like that.
“And a lot of places’ waiting lists don’t reflect it. What is the point of keeping any more, because you know you’re not going to be able to address that?” Greene said.
George Skinner, executive director of the provincial branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, agrees the need is tremendous, and its extent is not known.
He said for some people, longterm supportive housing is the only answer to giving them independence and a quality of life.
Power’s story was tragic, said Skinner.
“One of many, I would suggest,” he said.
While there are some boarding houses and family care arrangements through Eastern Health and facilities operated by non-profits, Power Scott, a freelance journalist in New Brunswick, said permanent spaces with support services, such as meals and 24-hour staff, are needed.
“One of the things I was really struck with was the family’s decision to tell Tony’s story.” - Jocelyn Greene
The Stella Burry Foundation helps people who have experienced breakdowns due to mental health issues, addictions, abuse, illiteracy, poverty and lack of education.
Stella Burry also offers roughly 100 supportive housing units, though it doesn’t provide meals. The foundation’s staff do provide advocacy and support services for tenants and clients.
The foundation, like other non-profits, accessed federal funding and is expanding one of its projects, but taking on capital projects is a major challenge, especially with rising construction costs.
There are some agreements with private landlords, but Greene said all levels of government need to step up to provide more affordable housing for low-income earners and people at risk.
“That’s been difficult for a number of years but certainly in the last year as we’ve seen rents escalate incredibly,” Greene said.
“As a city we got a real challenge. As a province we got a real challenge. Every hub in the province is reporting the same thing.”
Stella Burry also provides a food buying club, operates a community kitchen and helps tenants and clients develop life skills, such as learning to cook and clean.
Social activities are also important, Greene noted.
They allow people with similar issues to connect.
This year's provincial budget provided more money than ever before for mental health, including an e-mental health system that lets people go online.
Power had a case worker with Eastern Health, but Greene said even though resources have grown in recent years, workloads remain high.
And she said the stigma of mental health still remains a challenge.
“We think we have come a long way, but still people will talk about prostate cancer and breast cancer and everything. But to say ‘I am having an acute episode of depression, schizophrenia or bipolar,’ we still have this thing,” Greene said.
Often that stigma prevents people from asking for help when they need it the most.
“They just still feel this means they are weak or inadequate or deficient,” Greene said.
“We have to continue to work on all fronts.”