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

Aldergrove’s Shaelyn Lorensen won the 2019-2020 Youth Remembrance Contest with her artwork, held through the Legion National Foundation. (Shaelyn Lorensen/Special to The Star)
Aldergrove resident wins legion’s national youth remembrance art contest

Shaelyn Lorensen’s work is now on display at the National War Museum in Ottawa

Langley Rivermen forward Sean Bunting speeds away from Vernon defenders during the Rivermen’s 3-1 B.C. Hockey League win Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019 in Vernon. Bunting and fellow U.S.-born Rivermen player Hunter McCoy are now playing in the U.S. after the team opted for an all-Canadian line-up during the pandemic. (Black Press Media file)
Langley Rivermen go with all-Canadian roster during pandemic

Concerns about potential problems posed by U.S. during pandemic led to decision

Langley’s CARES cat shelter is holding an online fundraiser (file)
CARES cat shelter in Langley plans online fundraiser

Silent action aims to fill some of the gap created by COVID-19 cancellations

Barry Brinkwater with a chandelier from a real-life haunted house that has been added to the Brinkworth Dungeon at 22260 48th Ave (Dan Ferguson/Langley Advance Times)
VIDEO: Final year for Brinkworth Dungeon in Langley

Even bigger and better than previous editions for it’s last hurrah

Joseph Richards Group, which operates 25 restaurants, pubs, and establishments in the Lower Mainland – including several in Langley – was presented with a collaboration award from the chamber. (Special to Langley Advance Times)
Resilient Langley businesses lauded for their COVID twists

Langley chamber of commerce held its annual business award, but morphed it into a ‘community edition’

NDP Leader John Horgan celebrates his election win in the British Columbia provincial election in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Horgan celebrates projected majority NDP government, but no deadline for $1,000 deposit

Premier-elect says majority government will allow him to tackle issues across all of B.C.

VicPD and B.C. Conservation Officer Service teamed up to free two bucks who were entangled in a fishing net and dragging a wheelbarrow sized piece of driftwood behind them. (VicPD)
VIDEO: Police, B.C. Conservation help two bucks caught in one fishing net

Bucks were also dragging a wheelbarrow sized piece of driftwood behind them

A heavy police presence was spotted in Lumby, Monday, Oct. 26, 2020. (Facebook)
Police situation leads to ‘hold and secure’ at North Okanagan school

Police call for social media blackout in ongoing incident

École de l’Anse-au-sable. (Google Maps)
COVID-19 outbreak forces closure of Kelowna school

The outbreak is the first within B.C.’s school system since classes resumed back in September

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

FILE – B.C. Lions and Toronto Argonauts owner, Senator David Braley speaks after the CFL announced Vancouver will host the 2014 Grey Cup championship football game during a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday March 8, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
BC Lions owner David Braley dead at 79

Braley had bought the CFL team prior to 1997 season

File Photo
COVID-19 outbreak declared at Agassiz Seniors Community

First declared outbreak in Agassiz-Harrison since pandemic began

Most Read