Board member Joan Carson (left) and president Michele Avery are part of the team which assists the Eureka Support Society. Photo by Erin Haluschak

Eureka cornerstone for adults living with mental illness in the Valley

Society encouraged by the shift of perspective on mental illness

What began in a ward at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Comox is now a cornerstone in support for adults living with mental illness in the Comox Valley.

The Eureka Support Society has been a prominent fixture on Fourth Street in downtown Courtenay, and despite some changes in programming due to COVID-19, the organization has continued to help those who need its services throughout the pandemic and beyond.

“Organizations across the world were almost blindsided (by the pandemic), but we started doing research and we set up a system to keep in contact with our clients,” explains Chris Bate, the society’s executive director. “We worked with the Comox Valley Community Health Network … and we realized just how quickly people were already feeling the effects of quarantine. We have a couple of members trained as peer support workers, and we wanted to make sure the folks who live alone had contact.”

Bate says the organization is in the beginning stages of opening back up to its clients, and “are learning as we go,” and following strict safety protocols, which limits the number of people who can enter the building at one time.

“It’s overwhelming for a lot of people to come back, so it’s important that connections have been made right from the start,” adds Michele Avery, president of Eureka.

• • •

In 1992, a group of patients in the psychiatric ward at St. Joe’s met as a group, and a little while later, some of the initial meetings of the Eureka Support Society began in a living room.

Within a few years, explains Bate, funding from Island Health was secured and the group decided to follow a clubhouse-style model.

About four years later, the club hired its first executive director and had a space behind the Comox Valley Child Development Association.

In 2004, the society purchased the building in which they are currently located – 280 4th Street in Courtenay. The stability of having a location facilitated Eureka’s growth, adds Bate. While membership ebbs and flows, he says they have between 30 and 40 members a year.

There are 11 board members with the majority of the board comprising individuals living with mental illness.

Throughout a regular year, the society runs a number of longstanding programs such as hosting lunches, physical activity, art programming and employment. Through a contract with Island Health, the society must employ at least five people with mental illnesses – currently, they are working with 13. Shifts vary from one or two hours at a time, and employees work anywhere between two to 24 hours a week.

“The idea with employment is to be a stepping stone to community employment; we’re actually happy when somebody leaves,” explained Bate. “We are flexible if someone needs to take a leave of absence, and we need to be able to do that.”

In terms of other programming, Avery says programs come and go, but they encourage members to select their own programs. Pottery, stained glass, biking, Sew Sisters and cooking are just some that Eureka offer. Additionally, a mindful living class is hosted by an instructor through Island Health, and while some programs have changed throughout the years, the goals have not changed, notes Bate.

While demand for programs hasn’t changed, board members have noticed a shift in the way about which mental health is discussed. Avery credits social media for part of the shift, and Bate adds two key elements that have brought the discussion of mental health out in the open.

“When Olympian Clara Hughes started talking about her mental health and Prince Harry was being upfront and talking about it we noticed a shift,” notes Bate, who adds not only did the age of people attending the society change, but the perspectives on mental health changed when the Eureka members talked with different school-age children throughout the Valley.

“The shift was dramatic over a four-year period.”

Avery also credits the Bell Let’s Talk program which is designed to break the silence around mental illness and support mental health across Canada.

She says people are more aware of peer support and resources, and the stigmas around mental health have begun to shift.

• • •

On June 16, Eureka officially reopened its doors to clients, however, services are by appointment only in half-hour blocks. Bate says the society has to be conscious about how many hours it takes on.

Management has detailed reopening plans and has a goal to eventually open up to five days a week for clients.

“We don’t know when we’re going to be running the kitchen again, but our clients are being supported through LUSH (Valley Food Action Society) and we’re diverting some funding to them.”

For more information about Eureka, its services and hours, visit the Facebook page, or call 250-334-4035.

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