By James Breckenridge. I knew Shaminder Brar for close to a decade, starting at a point where I was homeless and on the streets of Abbotsford as a result of my own mental illness.

And while hearing of Shaminder’s death by hit and run, be it accidental or otherwise, did evoke a feeling of deep sadness, the feeling I most associate with thoughts and memories of Shaminder is pain.

Seeing the pain of mental illness, self-medication through drug (legal and illegal) abuse and being a pretty young woman with an addiction inflicted on Shaminder, being witness to the slow striping away of Shaminder’s dignity and seeing her reduced to a husk, to the animal humans are at our most basic level … was painful.

Painful not in the way of ‘breaking my leg was painful’, but painful in the sense of having a tiny piece of one’s humanity ripped away

I once spent close to four hours sitting in a small room in emergency at the old hospital with Shaminder and someone who, seeing the level of distress and pain Shaminder was in on that day, insisted on taking her to the hospital and press-ganged me into accomplishing this.

Four hours because that is how long it took emergency to find someone to help Shaminder and if we had not stayed with her, Shaminder would not have stayed either. More damning than the four hour wait was that even had Shaminder been capable of getting herself to the emergency ward at the hospital it is probable the behaviour and attitude of the staff would have sent her fleeing. It took the body language and attitude ‘you will provide help to this young woman or I will remove your head and get the help she needs from your replacement’ to motivate the staff.

During Fraser Health’s current fiscal year I have lost two people to suicide, and nearly lost a third, as a direct result of the rationing of mental health and substance use imposed by budget constraints.

So jumping on the ‘she was as much a casualty of the health care system as she was victim of any car accident’ bandwagon is tempting.

I will not take the easy way out and jump on the bandwagon because it ignores the numerous other important factors that contributed to Shaminder’s fate and, perhaps most importantly, it would be a terrible disservice to all the ‘Shaminders’ who remain in desperate need of help.

It is very easy to attack mental health because in matters like this their hands are literally tied behind them by privacy issues. The most that mental health can say is simply that there is a great deal of information and detail that the public is unaware of and will remain unaware of because of privacy laws.

I am in no way trying to absolve mental health and the Health Care system. They bear a share, perhaps the lions share, of responsibility for what aid Shaminder did not – and did – receive. But mental health does not bear sole responsibility. Responsibility for Shaminder’s Fate is shared widely and if our only reaction is to find someone to pin the blame on we are abandoning all those in similar circumstances as Shaminder was abandoned.

Although I in no way want to contribute to their pain, I could take some of the statements Shaminder made about her family, add in the psycho/social/bio realities of being human, mix in some rumour/innuendo and accuse Shaminder’s family of abandoning her to her mental illness, addiction and the streets of Abbotsford.

Or focus on the fact that while the Warm Zone helped keep Shaminder alive, it could be painted as enabling Shaminder and failing to build the bonds that would have helped Shaminder make healthier choices. One must not leave out all the other agencies and organizations whose stated purpose is to help those like Shaminder; agencies and organizations that required Shaminder change to suit their needs rather than being flexible enough to adapt to Shaminder in order to meet her needs and that either enabled or failed to establish the needed working relationship – or both.

And if we are pointing fingers at government agencies that are charged with helping people who need help, where were social services during these years?

Then there was the Health Minister (now Finance Minister) Mike de Jong and the governing Liberal party, who for crass political reasons avoid addressing the growing problems/issues that are causing increasing failures of the healthcare system to deliver adequate healthcare.

These issues and problems threaten the nature and future of the healthcare system, but because addressing these issues and problems would involve telling voters unpleasant realities they do not want to hear – which voters punish by voting for the opposition – none of the current political parties has the leadership, intestinal fortitude, integrity or principles to act in the best interests of the citizens of BC rather than the (short term) best interests of the politicians of BC.

And then there is the major obstacle that Abbotsford City Council is to the homeless seeking to recover their lives. An obstacle that not only played a major part in this tragedy, but bears a major responsibility for additional lives lost over the years and will bear responsibility for lives lost in the future as a result of their behaviours.

It is a part that grows as the City steps up their Abbotsford City Council, the homeless, social misfits and all those who not only will not conveniently disappear, but insist on resurfacing time after time after time after time …

Without housing to act as a stable base, a foundation upon which to reclaim and rebuild her life, what chance did Shaminder have?

They speak of the homeless as failing to be ‘medication compliant’, but how can you be medication compliant when even the questionable stability of a camp as a place to have shelter from the elements, to sleep and to leave one’s meagre belongings is denied by a City Council that hunts you down and turns you out onto the streets of Abbotsford at the same time their actions deny housing for the hard to house?

Would being ‘medication compliant’ or keeping appointments be at the top of your ‘To Do’ list when you have no idea where you will sleep tonight, much less tomorrow or the day after tomorrow?

Survival topped my list. If I wasn’t so stubborn, a stubborness enhanced by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, recovery and wellness would not have remained on my ‘To Do’ list. And even when they remained on my ‘To Do’ list, it was only the good fortune of having a PDA (a Sony Clié) into which I could enter where and why I needed to be and set it to make sure I was reminded and had enough time to get where I needed to go …

I have shared my “Theory of PDA Recovery” with various Case Managers at Mental Health, who acknowledge how useful a PDA would be to the homeless in making it to their appointments, taking their medications etc.

Stable, supportive housing can supply reminders and help in following the unique path that each person seeking recovery and wellness must find and follow.

There are solid reasons that the American Psychiatric Association recognizes ‘Housing First’ as an approach, perhaps the best approach, to helping the street entrenched homeless, the mentally ill, those abusing drugs (alcohol, prescription, the free enterprise street drugs) find their way to Recovery and Wellness.

Experience has demonstrated that, as counterintuitive as it may be, providing housing helps people to seek recovery and wellness quicker and provides support – a vital ingredient in finding recovery and wellness. Although given that human beings are involved, nothing should really be a surprise.

There are multiple targets to point fingers at and shout “J’ accuse”.

We have become a culture needing to find someone to blame and demonstrate our innocence, our lack of responsibility for the matter.

We seek someone to blame, make excuses, make it someone else’s fault and absolve ourselves of responsibility for causing the matter – and perhaps for resolving the matter?

Like the other major issues we seek to wilfully deny, avoid taking responsibility for correcting, do not want to hear or think about, want neat, easy, fast solutions … there is plenty of responsibility to go around among us all.

Society – the government – is us. We have built the society we live in through our actions; we have gotten the government we deserve as a result of our actions.

Take a look around at ‘best practices’ for dealing with homelessness, mental illness and misuse of drugs of all stripes. We could make impressive progress in addressing these and other challenges we face today – if we where to choose to and if we were willing to make the commitments and do what is necessary.

But while we will complain, complain, complain … we have become a province, a country, a society that seeks somebody to blame rather than accept responsibility for acting to correct what needs correction; a province, a country, a society that is unwilling to make any effort or sacrifice to address the growing number of issues that need our attention, decisions made and actions taken; that chooses not to see that the route to our wellness and prosperity requires that we renounce greed.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over and over and over … expecting a different outcome.

If we want outcomes different from those we are getting now, our actions and behaviours have to change.

To change our actions and behaviours we need to change ourselves.

We need leadership which, rather than encouraging the worst in us (for their personal benefit), challenges us to be the best we can be. We need new leadership that is not about racing to the bottom, but about struggling to the top.

We need to stop taking the path of less resistance, the easy way out and accepting the Lowest Common Denominator; we need to demand and strive for excellence from ourselves.

Rather than wilful denial of issues we need to return to what Canadians have always done when faced with daunting issues – whatever is necessary to overcome the obstacles.

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