MENTAL HEALTH: Changing lives in Surrey, one ACT at a time

Surrey resident Tara says she would probably be dead if not for health team


WHALLEY — Tara remembers watching drug addicts and prostitutes out of her classroom window as a child.

She was disgusted.

“I hated people who did drugs. I always said I’d never do that. But I did,” she said.

Tara spent 20 years of her life addicted to drugs, prostitution feeding her habit.

But she’s recently turned her life around, thanks to Fraser Health’s ACT (Assertive Community Treatment )program that helps adults with severe and persistent mental illnesses.

Many also struggle with addiction and homelessness.

“They’re kind of the folks who slip through the cracks,” said Gina Parhar, clinical co-ordinator for Surrey’s second ACT team, which just had its one year anniversary. The two teams help up to 170 people and consist of psychiatrists, social workers, nurses, mental health specialists, addictions workers and occupational therapists.

“Part of the reason why the ACT teams were created was in recognition that there was a group of clients that were frequenting the hospital, the ER department, psychiatric units, they were having repeat admissions. And they weren’t necessarily getting the follow-up they required… so it was becoming a revolving door,” said Parhar. “We’ve seen a reduction in hospital stays, ER visits, a reduction in police contacts, we’ve assisted people with housing and found that people have reported an improved quality of life.”

Tara (pictured) caught the attention of Surrey’s ACT team last year.She had lived on 135A Street for three years, dealing with mental health issues all along.

Tara has been certified under the Mental Health Act more than once, being involuntarily admitted to hospital for psychiatric treatment.

She found herself in hospital for a multitude of reasons, be it physical or mental, over the last several years. Some stays were months long and she’d be released to the streets only to return weeks later – until ACT jumped in and helped stop the revolving door.

During her last stay in hospital, the team found Tara an apartment and her life today is a stark contrast to her street life mere months ago.

Tara said she’s been clean for two months, keeps up with her doctor’s appointments, takes her medication and hasn’t needed hospital care since. She’s gone from just 105 pounds to 160.

Tara said she now wakes up in peace, “not getting poked at or a tarp ripped off” her. She said she was treated “like a piece of garbage” on the streets.

She’s also glad not to have to deal with being robbed while she sleeps, being beaten up for drugs, but perhaps most of all, not to have to prostitute herself.

“It was easy money,” she remarked. “You put up with a lot. There’s bad dates and everything else. You get hurt.”

If it wasn’t for ACT, Tara said she would be “still in the hospital. Or probably dead.”

Tara’s story is just one of dozens in Surrey and North Delta.

The secret to success is the teams’ passion, according to Meryl McDowell, Fraser Health’s director for mental health services in Surrey.

“They really, really care. I think that that is one of the factors that makes these teams so successful,” said McDowell. “I can’t say enough about the impact they have.”

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