According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, in any given year, one in five people in Canada will personally experience a mental health issue or illness. Alberta, which has the second highest suicide rates in the country after Quebec, is dealing with long wait times for psychiatric services.
Katie, who requested that her last name remain private because of potential stigmatization, knows all-too-well the experience of waiting for mental health services. Between 14 and 17, the Calgary teenager says she struggled to receive a proper diagnosis and bounced from psychiatrist to psychiatrist.
The CHMA says that almost 20 per cent of children and youth in Canada have a psychiatric disorder, and less than 20 per cent actually receive proper psychiatric care. This leaves nearly 80 per cent of youth diagnosed with a psychiatric condition with a lack of mental health care.
“It was about a four-month waiting period to see a psychiatrist,” says Katie. “I wasn't able to see him again for another month and a half because he was so booked.”
She says the psychiatrist told her she had symptoms of schizophrenia, psychosis, depression, bipolar and severe aggression, but he couldn’t diagnose her properly as she didn’t fit into any of them fully.
Not happy with the answers she’d be given, Katie waited another two months to see a new psychiatrist.
“They almost immediately diagnosed me with the early stages of psychosis,” she says. “They said we want to get you on the medication as quickly as we can.”
At that point, Katie's mom decided she didn’t want her on medication because she distrusted the quick diagnosis. Katie says she didn’t see another psychiatrist until she was 17, after trying to commit suicide.
“That's really when it clicked of how big of an issue this was.”
Katie says that it took more than 12 hours before she could finally see a psychiatrist once at the hospital. After the wait, the psychiatrist finally gave her the answers she was looking for.
“He was great. I wish I had seen him first because he finally gave me the proper diagnosis,” says Katie. “He suggested programs that I could try and different therapies I could try, which have been amazingly successful.”
A dark turn
Even though Katie had great success with her new psychiatrist and mental health programs, she recently hit a road-bump in her progress this summer.
“During Stampede this year, I was placed on a new medication and, Stampede as it is, I mixed too much alcohol with my medication,” says Katie, now 22 years old.
Katie says she had a drug and alcohol-induced manic episode where the police escorted her to the Foothills Hospital on a voluntary suicide watch.
“I asked if I [would] be seeing a psychiatrist, and they said, ‘We don't have time. We'll have somebody call sometime in the next week to make sure that you're okay,’” says Katie.
“After going in for suicide watch, all that they really offered me is, ‘We'll call you,’ so that was really disheartening for me.”
Brianne Collier, a youth-and-family counsellor at Woods Homes, says that wait times can be detrimental to those seeking immediate mental health help. She says although the youth receive quick care once at Woods Homes, they may have been on a waitlist previously before coming into their program.
“A lot of the kids that come to us have previously reached out for different services, and are currently on the waitlist,” says Collier. “While they were on a waitlist, they had some sort of crisis that ended up with them coming to our program.”
Katie is still waiting to see a psychiatrist and doesn’t have an appointment until April 2019.
“I definitely think we need more resources. I don't think there's any other reason for the wait times than a lack of people,” says Katie. “You can't have one psychiatrist seeing a thousand people. And that's kind of what it feels like, like you're just a number.”
Collier also says that it becomes increasingly difficult for teens to get help once they turn 18.
“We've had kids that were 17 and turning 18 in the next month or two, so we weren't even able to set them up with some of our usual resources,” says Collier. “For them, it is definitely more difficult because the adult waitlists are insane.”
Youths need better access to facilities
David Swann, a doctor and Liberal MLA in Calgary, agrees that mental health access for youth needs improvements. He helped author “Valuing Mental Health: Report of the Alberta Mental Health Review Committee.”
“What we haven’t done enough of is improve the access for young people and for people with mental illness who are needing help and need it when they need it,” says Swann. “They can't wait for two or three weeks, four weeks, eight weeks to get in to see somebody that can help them get through the time they're in.”
Access Mental Health, which is a part of Alberta Health Services, has a program for adults called Dialectical Behavioural Therapy Program. Its current wait time as of August 2017 is 14 months.
Lisa Sutherland from AHS Communications supports mental health awareness. She says that wait times for addiction and mental health programs vary depending on the specialty.
“Anyone needing mental health services can contact Access Mental Health who provide information, consultation and referral to individuals who have addiction and/or mental health concerns,” says Sutherland.
What needs to be done
Collier thinks that the mental health system is only providing minimal aid, and if there were more counsellors for less acute problems it could help the need and backlog for psychiatrists.
“The only reason why they are able to get the help is because they've already experienced a crisis situation like a suicide attempt. Something that was severe, that they were able to get immediate help,” says Collier. “But if they weren't quite at that point yet, then I think they would just be sitting on a waitlist.”
Katie knows the dire effects waitlists can have on someone who may need urgent psychiatric services and care.
“You know a lot of people who really struggle with mental health, it's difficult to wait- because for a lot of people,” says Katie. “Waiting means death.”
- By Sadie Johnson