This Week in History: the early days of mental health treatment in BC


Taryn Jones, archivist and librarian at the B.C. Archives, picks up a file from a B.C. Archives collection on early mental health treatment in British Columbia.

“So this is the first patient file that was created,” Jones said.

“The first recorded incident of a person suffering from some sort of mental illness was in 1850.”

John Helmcken, the doctor at the time in Victoria, reported that a Scottish immigrant had attacked him in an unprovoked attack.  Unfortunately, the Scottish immigrant was sent back home to Scotland to receive treatment.  At that time in Victoria there was no sort of facility for people suffering from mental illness, and if they did need to keep people, they were kept in the city jail.

The jail quickly became overcrowded, as there were only about a dozen cells. The lack of a facility meant those who needed mental health support were locked up with criminals.

“It became a bit of a problem when women started having mental health issues,” Jones said.  “And people in Victoria at the time realized that this really wasn’t a suitable place. And so the Royal Hospital on the Songhees Reserve was chosen as the first Victoria Asylum. It was outside of the city, it had a nice view out over the harbour, and it was seen as a calming environment.”

Opened in 1872, the Victoria Asylum was the only mental health treatment facility in the province at the time, and it also quickly became overcrowded and inadequate.

“After an investigation into conditions in the Victoria Asylum, they decided to move the hospital to property in New Westminster.  It was a purpose-built hospital that was known as the Provincial Hospital for the Insane,” Jones aid.

Many of the early patients lived in temporary housing on-site, and were paid to help construct the facility.

“It was thought that recreation and hard work would be beneficial to their healing” Jones explains.

Opened in 1913, the hospital was named Essondale, after Dr. Henry Esson Young, head of the Provincial Department of Health, and one of the founders of the University of British Columbia.

At its peak in the 1950s and ’60s, Essondale, later known as Riverview, treated nearly 5,000 patients. The 1,000-acre property included Woodlands School, the Crease Clinic, Valleyview Hospital for the Aged, and Colony Farm.

“For anybody who’s doing research into early mental health care, and early medical treatment, the records would be useful,” says Jones.

Veronica CooperVeronica Cooper

Recent Stories

Send us your news tips and videos!