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Mental health and addictions debate ends in odd consensus

"When I graduated from high school, one of my best friends hung himself. To this day, no one knows why," Duane Nickull told a packed room at SFU Woodward's Tuesday night.

The BC Conservative candidate for Vancouver-Point Grey shared stories about the friends he had lost to suicide at an all-party forum on mental health and addictions. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) BC Division's "Vote Mental Health 4 All" campaign planned the event in partnership with SFU Public Square and the SFU School of Public Policy.

Nickull's stories were rare personal anecdotes in a public forum about health conditions that many consider to be highly personal matters. Despite some recent gains, mental health and addiction carry significant social stigma and are not often discussed publicly.

Nickull has been a frequent representative for his party at Vancouver all-candidate debates. He told the audience that BC Conservative leader John Cummins supports decriminalizing marijuana to "free up a lot of money to focus on more serious drug problems."

Several times through the evening, Nickull emphasized his support for Insite, Vancouver's supervised-injection facility. The BC Conservative party, he noted, "is not a federal Harper party." He stressed the party's commitment to the rights of individuals as determined by the courts, and the importance of holistic, community driven approaches to care.

The importance of holistic care was echoed somewhat by the BC Green Party's Barinder Hans, running in Vancouver-Mount Pleasant.

The Greens, Hans said, are calling for a paradigm shift in how the provincial government approaches health care. "Right now, our healthcare system only acts when people get sick," he said.

Hans stressed the importance of preventative care -- "treat someone's depression before they become an alcoholic" -- and the Greens' Guaranteed Livable Income strategy, designed to mitigate income inequality and address the poverty endured by people with disabilities and mental health or addictions concerns that keep them out of work.

An audience member, part of the BC Coalition of People with Disabilities, asked candidates about the Persons with Disability (PWD) income-assistance benefit. To her and other mental health advocates, the current $900 monthly income assistance payment for people with disabilities is not enough to cover the cost of living. Seniors, on the other hand, receive $1,200 a month under the Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters (SAFER) program.

"Why do we expect people with disabilities to live on $900 a month?" she asked. 

"I'm afraid I'm just not schooled on it," BC Liberal candidate Andrew Wilkinson replied. Earlier in the debate, he said "PWD rates need to be sustainable and provide incentive to people to look for work."

Wilkinson, a trained physician and practicing lawyer, is also the former president of the BC Liberal Party and is running to replace former finance minister Colin Hansen in Vancouver-Quilchena.

He read aloud from the BC Liberal platform in response to other questions throughout the evening, emphasizing the 42 per cent of the provincial budget, or, as he put it, "$2 million an hour," dedicated to healthcare.

The only incumbent at the debate was Shane Simpson, longtime NDP MLA for Vancouver-Hastings. He stressed his party's promises to renew its focus on child and youth mental health, plus its future implementation of a poverty reduction plan.

Simpson's remarks echoed those of other NDP-ers who, when campaigning in the Comox Valley last week, faced a packed high school auditorium with teens searching for answers on why the recent spate of teen suicides in the region still left many young people in crisis with no help.

By the night's end, the candidates agreed with one another. Mental health and addictions are serious health concerns, they all said. "We're on the same page," Wilkinson said, "In terms of the need to address this with sympathy and warmth."

Jackie Wong is a Vancouver-based journalist.

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