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Part II: The second half-century of Durham Region’s psychiatric hospital

Opening in 1996, Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences celebrated its 100th anniversary in October 2019.

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

In the last edition of the Fourth Estate, The Oshawa Express took a look back at the first 50 years of the former Whitby Psychiatric Hospital, now known as the Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences.

Constructed in 1919, the centre celebrated its 100th anniversary this past fall.

As the 1960s drew to a close, mental health institutions were going through a massive paradigm shift, with a greater focus on treatment through medicine and deinstitutionalization.

In 1968, the Province of Ontario introduced its first Mental Health Act, meant to regulate the involuntary admission of people into a psychiatric hospital.

Two substantial changes came on the local level at the end of the 1960s.

First, the name of the facility changed to the Whitby Psychiatric Hospital, and oversight of the hospital transferred from a superintendent to a medical director and administrator.

Through the 1930s to the 1960s, the hospital was often overflowing with patients. Despite having a capacity for about 1,540 patients, the actual population had reached more than 1,700 in the late 1930s.

By 1970, the number of patients at the hospital had dwindled to 1,100 and would continue to plummet throughout the decade.

In 1972, an era came to an end as the hospital’s School of Nursing saw its last class graduate, and courses were moved to community colleges across the province.

Gender-segregated wards and cottages were eliminated in 1973.

A few years later, the cottages had deteriorated, and staff began lobbying for new facilities.

A fire in 1976 destroyed a barn located at the hospital’s north end.

A large fire destroyed a barn built in 1919 on the north end of the hospital on Nov. 4, 1976.

By 1977, there were only about 500 patients at the hospital, less than a third of the peak population decades earlier.

This decrease was one of the reasons why the need for a new facility there was downplayed for years.

A groundbreaking for a new building took place in 1979, but construction never moved forward.

The patient population continued to decrease in the 1980s.

However, satellite programs offering mental health services opened in Bowmanville, Port Perry, Beaverton, Lindsay, and Ajax.

As allegations of patient mistreatment at mental health facilities in Toronto became public in the 1980s, the province implemented a patient advocacy program.

Calls for a new facility continued, as buildings at the hospital began to rapidly deteriorate.

Some of the original cottages were beyond repair, as well as unsafe, leading to their closure.

In 1987 and 1988, the rise of new technology led to the computerization of the records department.

At the same time, the Ministry of Health announced plans to build a new 325-bed hospital.

The Ministry appointed an advisory committee to prepare modernized programs and services, as well as $7 million of funding for the redevelopment and to improve community health programs in the Durham area.

As with many provincial projects in the late 1980s, economic issues posed problems, and ground wasn’t broken on the new facility until November 1993 when the Bob Rae-led NDP government announced $133 million in funding for its construction.

The men’s pavilion, also known as Building 25, was demolished to make room for new buildings.

Some bricks of the demolished building became souvenirs for staff members.

In October 1994, Whitby Psychiatric Hospital celebrated its 75th anniversary with a new name – Whitby Mental Health Centre.

Through increased outpatient programs and a strong emphasis on reintegrating patients into the community, the population at the hospital was about 290 in 1995.

In 1996, more than 5,000 people attended the grand opening of the new centre.

MPP Jim Wilson, Minister of Health under the Mike Harris PC government, cut the ribbon and laid the cornerstone.

After decades surrounded by undeveloped land, roads and infrastructure were built for the proposed Whitby Shores subdivision in 1998.

With a brand new facility open, many of the older structures remained standing and continued to fall apart.

While fenced off from public access, the old Whitby Psychiatric Hospital became a popular spot for urban explorers, even though they were trespassing.

The decrepit state of the buildings made entering them very dangerous.

In 2003, Canadian rock band Billy Talent filmed scenes for the music video for their massive single “Try Honesty” at the hospital.

In 2005, demolition of the remaining older buildings began, with the last structures torn down in 2007.

As this was happening, the management of the hospital was undergoing significant changes as well.

In 2004, the facility and others across the province divested and became stand-alone organizations under the Public Hospitals Act.

When the hospital officially divested in March 2006, a community-based board of directors formed with core values of “excellence, innovation, safety, respect, and community.”

Under this new management structure, Ontario Shores adopted its first five-year strategic plan in 2007 with a new mission of providing leadership and mental health care through specialized treatment, research, education and advocacy.

Through the 2000s, several new initiatives launched, including the Women’s Clinic, which supports women diagnosed with a serious mental health illness or in need support for family planning, postpartum psychosis or depression, menopause, or medication-induced hormonal changes.

A new ‘virtual emergency room’ was started through the Central East Local Health Integration Network (LHIN) in 2009.

That same year in June, the facility adopted its current branding: Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences.

The Ontario Shores Foundation for Mental Health, with a goal to raise funds for the facility and its services, supports and programs, was established as well.

A new partnership with The University of Toronto saw Ontario Shores become a community teaching hospital, and a fully integrated electronic health record system was launched as well.

Lastly, 2009 saw the launch of the Imagine Arts Festival, an annual event featuring a wide variety of artists with a connection to mental health such as Lights, Serena Ryder, Chantal Kreviazuk, and Spirit of the West. Matthew Good served as the featured musician during the festival’s inaugural year.

Matthew Good performed at Ontario Shores’ first Imagine Festival in 2009.

The next year, Ontario Shores launched its first Mindful Music outdoor event, continuing the goal of creating a closer connection between the facility and the broader community.

In 2011, a new 20-bed unit opened in the Forensic Program, as well as the Traumatic Stress Clinic to provide specialized assessment, medication support, illness education, and counselling to individuals who have experienced traumatic incidents.

In early 2013, Ontario Shores began providing mental health first aid and workplace training to businesses, organizations, and individuals across Durham.

Later that May, Ontario Shores received exemplary standing from Accreditation Canada, the highest designation possible through the organization.

Between 2013 and 2016 several new programs launched including the Family Resources Centre, an adolescent eating disorders unit, and a partial hospitalization program which supports patients in need of transitional short-term day treatment.

In 2017 and 2018, Ontario Shores earned recognition as one of Greater Toronto’s Top Employers, based on criteria including work atmosphere, salary and benefits, vacation, skill development, and community involvement.

In preparation for Ontario Shores’ 100th anniversary in October 2019, six “ambassadors of hope” were selected to spread the message of the centre’s vision of core values. Left to right: Barbara Murray, Kristie Jennings, Lori Lane-Murphy, Ian Hakes, Candice McAlister and Jordon Beenen.

Leading up to Ontario Shores’ 100th anniversary, a variety of programs and initiatives took place.

Six “ambassadors of hope” with “lived experience” with mental health challenges were selected to serve as faces of the centennial celebrations, spreading the message about Ontario Shores’ vision and core values.

Other events included #MindVine podcasts with former Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke and P.E.I. country music singer Alli Walker.

Darryl Mathers, communications officer for Ontario Shores, says the 100th anniversary exhibited the full circle of how engaged with the community they are now.

“Since 2006, I’d say it’s constantly improving. Before that, we weren’t really in a space to talk about ourselves,” he explains. “There was a culture of do your job, do it well, and don’t worry about the image or the accuracy of the information in the conversations that are taking place.”

Describing the 100th anniversary as a “Super Bowl-like event” for Ontario Shores, Mathers says it wasn’t only about recognizing the centre’s construction, but how far the public perception of mental health has come.

“It’s amazing how much society has shifted in terms of viewing mental health. It hasn’t really been until this century that we as a society have moved forward,” Mathers says.