We are failing in our care of those with mental illness. How do I know? Because we continue to read about dead vets and hanging children.
A continuing Globe and Mail investigation has uncovered that “at least 70 soldiers and veterans died by suicide after returning from the Afghanistan operation… Corporal Shaun Collins, asked for mental-health services before returning home from his second Afghanistan tour, but there was no follow-up until he called a crisis line three months later. When help finally came, his family said, he was bounced around among therapists before he turned to a trauma specialist outside the military.”
The failure of the system was replayed in January when former soldier Lionel Desmond murdered his family and himself.
“He had received PTSD treatment from the military. But it remains unclear what level of care, if any, was provided by Nova Scotia’s health system after he left the Armed Forces in 2015. Relatives have come forward to say the 33-year-old Nova Scotia man was unable to get help more recently when he went to St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish, N.S.”
Sadly, this lack of care, of follow-up, is not unusual. Our soldiers face death on foreign shores, make it home, only to be abandoned by those whose pledge is to do no harm.
And then there are our children. Ian Manion, the director of youth research at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre said suicide is the second leading cause of death among those aged 15 to 34, only after motor vehicle accidents. These numbers mirror research he conducted in the 1990s which found similar numbers.
In other words, when it comes to mental health care, nothing has changed. It remains a second class disease.
In Canada aboriginal children are taking their lives by hanging themselves from the low-hanging branches of trees in the forest.They have to be low-hanging; these are young children. In Wapekeka First Nation in northern Ontario, small teams of uniformed Canadian Rangers — a sub-group of the Canadian Armed Forces reserve that serves northern and isolated areas walk through the forests looking for these children whose pre-frontal cortex, their moral compass, has only just begun to develop. Picture that. Close your eyes and think of a forest. At night. Peaceful. Now add the image of a young boy or girl hanging by a rope from the branch of a tree. These are our young people, pre-teens so full of hopelessness and helplessness, that they take their lives by hanging themselves from trees. And people walk around the woods with knives in their pockets to cut them down.
Unbelievable in 2017.
Is it money? We keep hearing about millions of dollars being allocated for mental health care.Yet, as the Mental Health Commission of Canada points out, our “fragmented and underfunded mental health systems across the country are far from able to meet the mental health needs of Canadians….The MHCC has called for an increase in mental health care spending of 2% compared to overall health spending in Canada – at least several billion dollars more than Canada already spends per year.” Sadly “only 7% of healthcare dollars are allocated to mental health care.”
Or is it priorities? Ontario is busy providing one free in vitro to women who are 45 years old. Seems we have the money and the medical staff to provide that service.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged to spend $650 million on sexual and reproductive health programmes over the next three years.
But psychiatrists and therapists? Not so much.
I am going to share my recent foray into the mental health care system. I am a mental health advocate. I wrote and narrated a six part radio series The Many Voices of Mental Illness. I have dealt with my illness for almost 20 years and I come from a family with mental health issues. As a hospital chaplain I cared for people with mental illnesses. I know my way around the system.
I turned to my family doctor more than a year ago as I knew that my medication for depression was no longer working. I had been on it for 16 years. We discussed a new drug but agreed to wait for an appointment with a psychiatrist to approve the choice. I was given a referral to William Osler, outside Toronto, Canada
I was told that there would be a 12 -15 month wait. Think about that. Imagine waiting for a cardiac specialist for 15 months. I am a well-informed adult with a circle of caring people. I managed to make it through suicidal times while waiting for this appointment. But what about those with little or no support? Who have no idea how to work the system? Like veterans and children; our most vulnerable.
I finally got a phone call at the year mark for an appointment three months down the road. I wasn’t consulted-I was told. Turns out the appointment fell on a day when I would be out of the country. In the meantime another referral was made to a hospital in Toronto, outside my catchment area. Miraculously I got in within two months.
I saw the psychiatrist, we agreed on a new drug and off I went-with no follow-up appointment. I think the idea was that my GP would be the Quarterback. Well she dropped the ball. I was on the new drug for two weeks and knew I was in trouble. The physical side effects weren’t that unusual. I did get concerned when I thought my kidneys were shutting down. I knew I was in trouble when my anxiety took control of me and the medicine had been to help with anxiety. Tears were not close to the surface, they were running down my face. And I felt rage.
I took myself off the drug, got back on the old one, because I knew that getting off all drugs would take me down even deeper into the abyss. I called the doctor. And didn’t hear back. And I tried to get hold of my psychiatrist. Left messages on two different answering machines. No one got back to me. The following week I was a mess. And I no longer had the energy or the fortitude to call. Mental illness is exhausting. Truly exhausting. I feel so sorry for people who have no family to advocate them. My partner and my daughter made calls for me. The family doctor said she could see me in 4 weeks!
Now think about this. If someone with a heart condition or diabetes had received a new medication and was having serious trouble with it do you think the family doctor would say wait a month? Or any doctor for that matter? I doubt it. Mental health is still not given the respect it deserves.
The psychiatrist called back. Miraculously, an appointment had opened up that afternoon.
How many people in need get that appointment?
I discovered that doctors are not connecting with each other. Files are closed after one appointment and if trouble ensues, it’s back to square one, a request for a referral. If you don’t know the system, if you have no advocate you will get lost in the shuffle of papers. Sadly, for too many that failure too often leads to suicide and family murder.
Mental health care is on life-support and too many of us are dying.