Long and Strong: Celebrating a legacy of mental health care

The Highbury Avenue location was home to mental health care in London for nearly 145 years

As St. Joseph’s Health Care London prepared for the momentous move of staff and patients into the new Mental Health Care Building on the grounds of what is now Parkwood Institute, the organization also reflected on the past and recognized the long-standing legacy of care that has advanced and transformed over the last century.

With a building cost of $100,000, the London Asylum for the Insane (LAI) opened in November 1870. The facility became part of a widespread movement across North America to create specialized institutions for the mentally ill.

Main Building London Asylum for the Insane (LAI)

The London Asylum for the Insane was instantly at capacity with 500 patients when it was opened in 1870.

The LAI’s first superintendents believed the quiet country setting was healing and that regular work habits, amusement and proper diet were beneficial for patients. Dr. Richard Bucke, the second and most notable superintendent, believed in the idea of work therapy, including farming, as treatment for those with mental illness. In the late 1800s almost all of the 900 patients were working in some capacity at the facility.

The understanding of mental illness continued to develop as the 20th century drew near and control of all mental health care facilities in Ontario transferred to the Department of Health from the Inspector of Prisons and Public Charities. This resulted in LAI being renamed the Ontario Hospital London in 1932.

Dr. Richard Bucke

As thinking progressed, more humane approaches of treatment were developed, including “moral therapy,” one of the most revolutionary developments during the 20th century. Moral therapy focused on improving care but also had a strong focus on social norms and regular work habits. This therapy was incorporated into treatment with the expectation that patients could use the skills they learned in the community after their stay.

During his 25 years as superintendent of London Asylum for the Insane, Dr. Richard Bucke initiated some progressive ideas on care, such as work therapy, to help mental health patients focus on healthy activities.

Open air bedrooms

Open air bedrooms were part of the therapy used in the early years at the Highbury site.

Though treatment of mental illness continued to develop, the 1930s saw the highest number of patients in the facility at 1700.

View from sunroom

As overcrowding became an issue in the 1930s at the Highbury site, sunrooms were converted into patient bedrooms.

In 1963, demolition began on the Ontario Hospital London and construction began on a new mental health facility, the London Psychiatric Hospital (LPH). During the 1960s to late 1990s, the hospital was a regional resource and people came from across Southwestern Ontario to receive care. It was also during this time that many changes to mental health care were developed, including new therapies, programs and advancements to medications.


Staff and patients partake in a friendly game of volleyball in the recreation hall of the Highbury site. Patients enjoyed many activities through the years including dances, picnics, gardening and drop-in centres.

Nurse writing

As treatments changed, nurses adapted methods to ensure modern care practices.

In 2001 St. Joseph’s Health Care London took over governance of the London Psychiatric Hospital and its name changed to Regional Mental Health Care London. This era was especially tied to change as mental health transformation began to take shape, including plans to build a new facility.


Chapel of Hope 

Built in 1884 the Chapel of Hope, now a designated heritage site, has long been a spiritual haven for patients, visitors and staff.

More recently, a shift in care has taken shape from an institutional model to one of rehabilitation recovery, hope and healing. Individuals no longer come from across the region to one facility. Instead, patients are cared for in newly established or expanded programs in their home communities, and a stronger emphasis is placed on community programs and support.

Avenue of the trees at RMHCL

An icon of the Highbury site—the Avenue of Trees—represents the beauty and hope within every individual and the path that people journey toward recovery.


Era of the Avenue

On September 28, 2014 St. Joseph’s held a mental health care legacy event, The Era of the Avenue, to help celebrate the end of an era that began nearly 145 years ago. About 6,000 people strolled the grounds of the former mental health care site on Highbury Ave. reminiscing as they viewed old buildings and historical artifacts, in partnership with Museum London, as well as enjoying horse-drawn carriage rides, antique cars and learning about mental health advancements and developments throughout the decades. The event was a huge success marking the end of care at that site for staff, patients, families and the community.



Dignity After decades—A New Era begins

The next era in care, recovery and rehabilitation was launched with the opening of St. Joseph’s Mental Health Care Building at Parkwood Institute

“This building is designed with the belief that recovery is possible and, just as importantly, that even people who do not achieve the level of hoped-for recovery, are worthy of the best care possible. These two elements—recovery focused care and worthiness, just because they are members of our community—go a long way to address stigma.”

Those meaningful words were spoken by Cathie Gauthier, a mother who has lived the journey of mental illness with her son, and who was among those at the grand opening ceremony of St. Joseph’s new Mental Health Care Building in November 2014. The devoted mom brought tears to eyes when she shared her family’s personal odyssey in supporting a child with a mental illness and what the new facility would mean to those who will receive care within its walls.

“This new building is aiming for excellence in care and research. Families look forward to what research reveals, but it’s clear there are some things St. Joseph’s already has right,” said Cathie. “Any person who has loved another who has fallen ill knows that natural light, fresh air, privacy, a place to walk and a place to pray, staff that believe in their patients and value family as a strong component of recovery, provides the best chance of reclaiming wellness.”

The opening of this innovative building, dedicated to the treatment, recovery and rehabilitation of adolescents and adults experiencing severe and persistent mental illness, is a major milestone and part of a bold vision for the future. Located on the grounds of Parkwood Institute, it replaces the old facility on Highbury Avenue—the site of mental health care in London since 1870.

After decades in the making, the new facility has come together with the programs of the former Parkwood Hospital, now referred to as the Main Building at Parkwood Institute. Originally established by the Women’s Christian Association more than 120 years ago, Parkwood has a long legacy of caring for people requiring complex, specialized geriatric services and rehabilitation, helping them live life to the fullest. With similar strengths, hopes and possibilities, these two facilities, now in one location, are erasing the lines between physical and mental health with a focus on care, recovery and rehabilitation of the whole person—body, mind and spirit.

Across Parkwood Institute, clinical and research teams are collaborating in new ways across disciplines and specialties, making it unlike any hospital site in Ontario. Patients recovering from stroke, acquired brain injury, spinal cord injury and amputation, those with cognitive issues such as dementia and mental illness, and patients needing specialized geriatric care, palliative care, and veterans care are all served at Parkwood Institute.

With 156 individual patient bedrooms and 460,578 square feet of contemporary, therapeutic space, the new Mental Health Care Building will make a marked difference for patients, families and care providers, says St. Joseph’s president and CEO Dr. Gillian Kernaghan. “Buildings don’t provide care, people do. But the impact of environments on healing must not be underestimated.”

Designed to inspire hope and support a recovery model of care, the new facility offers environments that foster dignity and promote individual growth and skill development. As patients progress in their recovery, they journey through the specially designed facility, where an abundance of natural light fills rooms and corridors. Spaces in the “downtown area” encourage social interaction and a sense of community while areas in the “neighbourhood” promote education and skill building and the “house” provides private and comfortable living spaces.

 “This is a beautiful building, this is a respectful building,” remarked Deputy Premier Deb Matthews at the opening. “We are celebrating a true transition. …We are crossing a bridge. All of us are part of history today because this building represents a new way of caring for people who have challenges when it comes to mental health and addictions.”

Bill Wilkerson, co-founder of the Global Business Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health, understands first-hand the need to care for people, mind, body and spirit.

 “This building is a statement and a philosophy as much as a facility of care,” he said. “I heard someone say that as much love was poured into this building as cement. And like all great places that is the thing that will keep it alive and keep it strong.”

At a Glance: St. Joseph’s new Mental Health Care Building at Parkwood Institute

  • 460,578 square feet of healing, therapeutic space
  • 10,000 square feet of new research space
  • 156 individual patient bedrooms and bathrooms
  • Built to facilitate a progressive recovery journey
  • More than 100 volunteers
  • Gold Level for Leadership in Engineering and Environmental Design (LEED)
  • More than 700 staff members
  • More than 83,500 outpatient and outreach appointments each year
Mental Health Care Building Chapel

The chapel and multi-faith prayer room is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week to patients, staff, visitors and volunteers for personal reflection or prayers. Individuals may also take meditative walks through the labyrinths located inside the prayer room and outside in the chapel gardens.

Mental Health Care Building 2

Interior courtyards allow for abundance of natural light and for the sun, rain and snow to be visible through the seasons from inside the core of the facility.

Mental Health Care leadership team

Members of St. Joseph’s mental health care senior leadership team, along with St. Joseph’s President and CEO Dr. Gillian Kernaghan, pose in front of the new Parkwood Institute landscape. From left are Sandy Whittall, Dr. Sandra Fisman, Dr. Kernaghan, Dr. Paul Links, Dr. Sarah Jarmain and Deb Corring.

Mental Health Care Building outside

With 156 individual patient rooms and 460,578 square feet of specially designed therapeutic space, the new St. Joseph’s new Mental Health Care Building will make a marked difference for patients, families and care providers.

Bishop Ronald Fabbro and Chris Baron

As is the St. Joseph’s tradition, Bishop Ronald Fabbro, with the assistance of St. Joseph’s mental health care chaplain Chris Baron, blessed spaces in the new Mental Health Care Building.

Mental Health Care Building courtyard

Each unit within the Mental Health Care Building has access to a large interior courtyard. Designed for patient use, these outdoor spaces are landscaped and allow access to fresh air and sunshine. Dining rooms with floor to ceiling windows look out onto the courtyards, which bring in much natural light. Many of the spaces on the inpatient units, like the dining rooms, offer great flexibility and can be used for other social group activities or events.

Panorama photo of Parkwood Institute

St. Joseph’s innovative, new Mental Health Care Building opened on the grounds of Parkwood Institute in November.


 Next stop – Parkwood Institute

One could easily say change is not easy, and that sentiment would be true for the journey mental health care staff, patients and families encountered in the past decade. Since the Health Services Restructuring Commission directives in 2001, St. Joseph’s has undergone tremendous change and transition in the area of mental health. 

The grand opening on Nov. 7, 2014 of the new Mental Health Care Building at Parkwood Institute was a landmark day but the true final step in Mental Health transformation took place nine days later when patients moved into the new facility. 

It was a day mental health care staff have been waiting for – to care for patients in an environment they deserve that will aid in recovery and give them the privacy and dignity everyone values. 

On the cold but dry day, Voyageur Transportation vans lined up to take patients to the new site. Upon arrival patients were welcomed with small gifts from Parkwood Institute’s therapeutic recreation specialists and handmade cards made by their neighbours – the veterans who live in Western Counties Wing. 

“Watching the faces of the patients as they came in – seeing their own private bedrooms - was amazing,” said Dr. Sarah Jarmain, Site Chief for the mental health care program. “People are really excited about being in a clean, new space with lots of light and beautiful views.” 

While some patients and staff would need time to adjust most settled nicely. On move day, there was no shortage of positive comments from the patients who are excited about their new space, noting the bright colours, light and peacefulness associated with having their own room. 

Some patients were apprehensive about moving in but were pleasantly surprised when they saw a gift and card, which helped them feel welcomed by the rest of the Parkwood Institute community. “It was awesome, a nice touch and very welcoming,” said Tammy. “Thank you for putting your time and effort into doing this for us.” 

In a gesture of thanks one patient, Adam, painted a beautiful evening landscape to give to the veterans. The card that accompanied the painting had a painted poppy with the words, “We remember your sacrifices for our freedom. This is a painting from the G4 unit (Treatment and Rehabilitation) to all the war veterans who fought in…war. Thank you for the nice cards, God bless you all from all the staff and patients. Thank you.” 

The feel good moments were in abundance in the days following the move and as the snow swirled in the interior courtyards, looking quite magical. Others had fun in their newfound space. Patients in the Dual Diagnosis Program built a snowman on their rooftop patio - a fun tribute to the new location. 

The jouney to the new facility has now come to an end but the commitment to ensure patients receive the best care will continue. So too will advocacy efforts for those with mental illness. That path, though well underway, will require much focus for years to come.


Adam with his painting and card as a thank you to the veterans.
This is a beautiful building, this is a respectful building.… All of us are part of history today because this building represents a new way of caring for people who have challenges when it comes to mental health and addictions.