Early history of local mental health treatment

Mental health has been a concern as long as humankind has existed

On Monday, Feb. 26th, the Alberta Central branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association kicked off the local centennial celebrations of the national C.M.H.A.

This was both a celebration and an educational session on one of the nation’s oldest and largest voluntary organizations, which has done outstanding work on one of the leading health issues for Canadians.

Mental health has been a concern as long as humankind has existed.

Although the problems were not well understood, mental health was a particular concern during the early settlement of western Canada.

People faced incredible adversities while trying to create a new life on the frontier.

Sometimes, the ongoing challenges and frequent disasters were more than the pioneers’ minds could manage. Moreover, loneliness and isolation were a huge problem.

People were removed from the usual supports of family, friends and community.

In the very early years, those who were deemed to be insane were transported to the Manitoba Asylum in Brandon. Because there was not a province of Alberta until 1905, the Federal Government was responsible for the care of these patients from Alberta.

In 1907, after the Province of Alberta was created, the Insanity Act was passed to cover the treatment and care of the mentally ill.

A site was then acquired at Ponoka for the construction of a mental health institution.

The project was a significant one.

However, it was not until July 4th, 1911 that the institution was finally opened for patients. More than 160 of the first admissions were patients transported back from Brandon.

Mental health became a major crisis during the horrific First World War (1914-1918).

Men on the front lines were pitted against new technologically-advanced weapons. The result was catastrophic losses of life and incredible wounds to both the body and mind. The latter cases were referred to as ‘shell shock’.

Today we would refer to those wounds as P.T.S.D.

The wartime P.T.S.D. crisis provided a huge boost to the work of Dr. Clarence Hincks and Clifford Beers with what was then known as the mental hygiene movement.

People were becoming increasingly aware of the inadequacy of programs and facilities for the treatment of mental health cases. Beers’ book, The Mind That Found Itself, based on his own experiences in the American asylum system, was key in helping to identify and publicize those problems.

Now the nation was faced with thousands of veterans returning home with serious mental health problems, with very little in the way of programs and facilities to deal with them.

Consequently, in 1918, Dr. Hincks, together with Charles Beers and Dr. C.K. Clarke, Dean of Medicine at the University of Toronto, worked hard to create the Canadian National Committee for Mental Hygiene (the original name for the C.M.H.A.)

It is an indication of the heightened public awareness of mental health issues that 18 prominent figures in Canadian medicine and business agreed to join the C.N.C.M.H.’s first board of directors.

Among those who volunteered were the president of the CPR, the head of the Bank of Montreal, and the president of Molson’s.

A lot of support for the new C.N.C.M.H. was garnered by holding innovative ‘drawing room meetings’ at the homes of influential citizens.

Meanwhile, in 1916, the Alberta Government purchased the Alberta Ladies College in Red Deer with plans to turn it into a facility for mentally handicapped children.

However, with the escalating numbers of shell-shocked veterans, a decision was made to turn the facility into a special mental health hospital for veterans.

The Red Deer Soldiers’ Sanitorium officially opened in March 1918.

Many of the first patients were transferees from the overcrowded Ponoka Mental Hospital.

In 1923, the Provincial Government built the Oliver Mental Hospital northeast of Edmonton. The new institution was felt to be better suited for the treatment and care of chronic, long-term care patients.

The Red Deer veterans’ facility was then converted to the original intended purpose – the Provincial Training School (P.T.S.) for mentally handicapped children.

(To be continued)

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