"It's important to remember that psychiatric illnesses are chronic illnesses. People with chronic illnesses can struggle to find hope," says Dr. Wiehahn. "This is the aspect of psychiatry that's most interesting to me. How do we help people that are bogged down in chronic illness find light at the end of the tunnel?"
Dr. Wiehahn is the medical director for Forensic Psychiatric Services and the director-in-charge of B.C.'s Forensic Psychiatric Hospital, the only forensic facility in the province. It is a secure, 190-bed facility that treats and rehabilitates individuals who have come in conflict with the law and are deemed unfit to stand trial or not criminally responsible due to mental illness.
He came to BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services from a tertiary psychiatric rehabilitation centre in Kamloops, but he also brings an international lens to his work. Dr. Wiehahn was born in Holland, raised in South Africa and worked in the United Kingdom prior to immigrating to Canada in 2004.
An interest in psycho-social rehabilitation is the reason he immigrated to Canada and settled in this province to practice tertiary psychiatry, or psychiatry for the most high-need, acutely ill patients.
"With psycho-social rehabilitation, you start with helping the patient look at where they are and focus on where they want to get to. This allows someone to find hope. I want to help people change their mindset from 'never' to 'I can after I have found certain supports,'" says Dr. Wiehahn.
Dr. Wiehahn notes that public safety is always the primary focus when providing treatment, but the hospital also focuses on helping patients prepare for eventually integrating back into the community. That goal guides much of the work he and his colleagues do.
His team recently carried out patient journey mapping with a few groups of patients at the hospital. This group therapy activity helps patients visually see where they are and plot a course to recovery.
Dr. Wiehahn says that most patients do return to their home community in time, but they need help to do so, and staff need to prepare. He uses the analogy of going up on a roof safely: "Just as a roofer would not go up on a roof without the right tools, safety precautions, and training, patients with severe mental illness need treatment and supports to reintegrate safely and successfully into the community."
He says the hospital's physicians and staff look at the nature of a patient's charges as well as at their illness and then ask, "How can we help you and everyone else not have that happen again?"
Physicians and other clinical staff such as Mandi, a patient care coordinator, are able to help patients find hope and belief in a better future by offering empathy, kindness, a therapeutic environment, and the treatment they need to get well.
The empathy reflected by staff can have a profound impact in helping individual patients develop hope for a new start, according to Dr. Wiehahn.
"Ultimately, I think hope is something that you must personally believe in and want for yourself, and if staff demonstrate behaviour that gives patients hope for change, patients learn from their example."