Artists explore mental health today using a glimpse of the past

On September 28, Coquitlam Heritage holds its opening reception to a new artist-led exhibit on the defunct mental health institute of Riverview. The exhibit sees local artists, Lolu Oyedele, Nadine Flagel and Haley Perry, as well as Coquitlam Heritage staff Naomi Fong and Markus Fahrner, reflecting on the challenging history of Riverview, drawing links between the past, present and future of mental health while reflecting on their own experience.

“By giving artists the ability to interpret the history of Riverview, it just shifts the narrative a little bit. It allows people to bring in their personal understanding, their personal relationship to it,” says exhibit manager, and artist Markus Fahrner. “I think that in doing so, it opens up history and the way we understand it in a much wider and more pluralistic way.”

Who gets to be ‘normal’

Lolu Oyedele has been thinking, and writing, about mental health for a while now. The Nigerian-born poet spent his adolescence in both South Africa and Canada, and, ever since that time in his life, he’s been writing about the challenges of navigating a social system that doesn’t accommodate people whose brains work somewhat differently.

A scene from the upcoming Riverview exhibit by Coquitlam Heritage. | Photo by Markus Fahrner.

“I was struggling with a lot of these things, and I didn’t understand why other people seemed to be fine,” says Oyedele.

Oyedele is fairly certain he has ADHD. While he’s never been formally diagnosed, getting a diagnosis now as an adult can be challenging and very costly. Challenges like these have Oyedele thinking about how well society is able to accommodate people outside of what’s considered “normal” when it comes to mental illness, or neurodivergence – a term that encompasses conditions like ADHD which aren’t necessarily a mental illness.

It’s these thoughts and experiences that have informed his poetry and writing up until this point, including his poetry at this new exhibit, as he looks to understand how individual experiences fit into broader patterns of how society treats anyone who falls outside the norm.

“I’m really interested in how as a society – and as a system of people – we engage with that when it comes to the personal,” says Oyedele. “I feel like sometimes with mental health and with there’s a separation between ‘normal’ people and [others].”

From past to present

Artists like Oyedele, drew upon historical documents and notes from Riverview’s history for this exhibit. One such story, says Fahrner, tells of a woman that was confined to Riverview for 40 years for what we now understand was postpartum depression.

Much like that story, the histories and documents Oyedele found seemed to show that a lot of the ‘difference’ between those who were confined to Riverview and everyone else was often exacerbated by the institute itself.

“It felt like in a different system, in a different environment, a lot of these people would have the care needed to be integrated into normal society,” says Oyedele. “Riverview as an institution was sort of separated from everyday living, from ‘regular’ people.”

And while there’s much that has changed between the past and the present, Oyedele feels there is still much to be learned from Riverview’s legacy about how we treat mental differences to this day.

For example, Oyedele says that the ‘social integration’ approach that became increasingly popular in Riverview’s later years had an ‘infantilizing’ tinge to it. Oyedele says that resonates in a way with his adulthood experiences with ADHD, a condition where resources and expertise are often easier to find for children.

“When people were being reintegrated, it was sort of a fallback to treating them like children again because there’s an understanding of how to approach that,” says Oyedele. “I think I do feel personally connected to a lot of those parallels.”

Overall, Oyedele hopes people come away from the exhibit thinking about other ways that the institutions of the past can have an effect on the present.

“A lot of the people who were admitted into these places, there was no choice. They did not have a choice as to whether or not they were seen as sane or even [rehabilitatable],” says Oyedele. “I would love for people to come out of this with the sense of, ‘what are other systems forcing individuals into a way of existing?’”

For more information about the exhibit, visit: