Rain Man vs. reality

“Too often the mental health-care system has not grown to meet the different and complex challenges (of people with developmental disabilities) that such ailments impose in adolescence and adulthood.”1

It’s fascinating that CAMH’s new Centre for Adult Neurodevelopmental Disabilities and Mental Health says the need to focus on people with developmental disabilities who have mental health issues has long been ignored.  Once-upon-a-time Ontario’s regional centres cared for those with mental health issues.  You may recall some of them:

  • Huronia Regional Centre
  • Midwestern Regional Centre
  • Oxford Regional Centre
  • Rideau Regional Centre
  • Southwestern Regional Centre

When the care of people with developmental disabilities in Ontario fell under The Ministry of Health there was an appropriate understanding (caregivers were learning) of how age plays a role in these people’s lives.  Did you know that a variety of health-care professionals, including a psychiatrist and a psychologist were on staff at regional centres?

That was until the Ontario Liberal government sealed the fate of regional centres by closing them by 2009.   In the process they enabled a well scripted, choreographed and funded (with your tax dollars) smear campaign of centres to legitimize their actions.

The origins of the myopic view of centres dates back to the 1970s when the “community living” panacea and its close cousin the panacea of choice started to cloud thinking.  Social workers apparently knew more than medical professionals and gave the impression that social integration (the involvement of centre residents in their neighbouring community didn’t cut it) would get rid of that annoying disability.  Consequently, The Ministry of Community and Social Services took over the developmental disabilities file from The Ministry of Health.  Rational and pragmatic thought started to take a backseat to pushing the politically correct, “community living” panacea for people with a developmental disability.

The poster-child for the movement was the individual who had a mild developmental disability.  The perception was created, but untrue in the modernized centre, that such a person was locked away and isolated in the dreaded institution, Hollywoodized by Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.

“There are two critical gaps,” says Dr. Yona Lunsky, head of CAMH’s new centre.  “One is that there is very little research being done on the mental health of adults with neurodevelopmental disabilities.”

Lack of research?  Given the close working relationship between staff at regional centres, there is a history of rational and pragmatic ways of working with a variety of developmental disabilities.  This includes people with a dual diagnosis (a developmental disability and a mental health issue).

The other, Lunsky says, is that mental health-care workers have not been trained to deal with differences in the psychiatric issues faced by these populations.  Again, the psychiatrist and psychologist at a centre gave front-line workers an invaluable resource of knowledge to draw on.

Lunsky sited ongoing stigma, social isolation, chronic unemployment and poverty as factors that loom large in the reality of many disabled people and can take a severe toll on mental health.

This is reprehensible because for decades the “community living” zealots have sung the same chorus:  “institutions isolate people.”  Now we learn that they are isolated in group homes and family homes.  Do you need more evidence that the “community living” panacea is an unmitigated disaster in Ontario?  The ombudsman’s office reported in 2016 that almost 50% of the 62,000 adults with a developmental disability languish on waiting lists for critical services.2

Too many politicians of all stripes and entrenched bureaucrats have blindly followed the “community living” panacea.  They have lost sight of the big picture.  Can you imagine how the regional centres could by now be centres of excellence, as the following petition called for (one of hundreds of similar recommendations the Ontario Liberals ignored before closing the doors)?

“Mr. Garfield Dunlop (Simcoe North):  “To the Legislative Assembly of Ontario:

“Whereas Dalton McGuinty and his Liberal government were elected based on their promise to rebuild public services in Ontario;

“Whereas the Minister of Community and Social Services has announced plans to close Huronia Regional Centre, home to people with developmental disabilities, many of whom have multiple diagnoses and severe problems that cannot be met in the community;

“Whereas closing Huronia Regional Centre will have a devastating impact on residents with developmental disabilities, their families, the developmental services sector and the economies of the local communities;

“Whereas Ontario could use the professional staff and facilities of HRC to extend specialized services, support and professional training to many more clients who live in the community, in partnership with families and community agencies;

“We, the undersigned, petition the Legislative Assembly of Ontario to direct the government to keep Huronia Regional Centre, home to people with developmental disabilities, open, and to transform them into ‘centres of excellence’ to provide specialized services and support to Ontarians with developmental needs, no matter where they live.”

I’m pleased to sign my name to that.”3

These centres of excellence are where people with severe disabilities could live and those with mild issues could access day programs.  Centres of excellence could be extraordinary resources to help alleviate the devastating strain on mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and guardians.

In their pre-election budget in March, the Ontario Liberals announced a promise of $2 Billion for people languishing on waiting lists.  This eleventh-hour, come-to-Jesus moment rings hollow because they have been in office for 15 years.  To just throw taxpayers’ dollars at a misguided system is equally suspect.

The words of Dr. Gifford-Jones come to mind: “The problems of society are caused by supposedly intelligent people who are largely fools.”


1. http://torontosun.com/news/local-news/new-camh-hub-to-focus-on-developmental-disabilities-and-mental-illness

2. http://hansardindex.ontla.on.ca/hansardecat/38-1/l114-4.htm

3. Facts and Highlights from:  https://www.ombudsman.on.ca/resources/reports-and-case-summaries/reports-on-investigations/2016/nowhere-to-turn


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