Mental health stigma still prevalent

An estimated one in three people will have a mental health problem at one time in their life, according to a 2007 report by the Alberta Mental Health board.

But some people who have experienced the tribulations of mental health are unsatisfied with the services in place to help.

Closing doors on helping people

Fighting back tears, Dr. Avalon Roberts, a community-based psychiatrist, spoke of her distaste with mental health services.

“They’re opening a psych ward in the new South Campus hospital, but they’re closing the one at the Foothills hospital,” Roberts said.

“My colleague at the Rockyview Hospital psych ward said they are always full —100 per cent full — all the time. That means people are in the corridors and people are in emergency waiting to be admitted.

“It’s not a good situation,” she added.Lisa Neve, a former dangerous offender, discusses her experiences with mental illness. She was one of five panelists to talk with the roughly 80 people that attended the Hillhurst Sunnyside Community Centre.

Photo by Drew Henn

Shuffling into the Hillhurst Sunnyside Community Centre, concerned residents outnumbered chairs at a recent discussion on mental health care. Roberts; Dr. David Swann, former president of the Alberta Association of Medical Health Officers; and other panelists swapped personal experiences with members of the crowd.

“I think these discussions are at the very foundation of an accountable government,” Swann said.

“If we don’t truly know what’s going on in their homes and in their hearts, then we’re just playing our own games — benefitting our own individual selves and parties.”

Concerned people share their stories

As Swann passed the microphone around the crowd, all those in the room heard personal examples of how mental illness affects families.

Fiona Haynes, manager of the Calgary chapter of the Schizophrenia Society of Alberta, was one of those who shared her experiences.

“We need to understand that anyone who has a brain is susceptible to mental illness. I’m not ashamed to say that I have a mental illness,” said Haynes, referencing her battling with depression.

Haynes also shared details of her daughter’s battle with depression. Haynes said she brought her into the hospital because she was threatening suicide and cutting herself, but was told that because there was no immediate danger, her daughter should see a psychiatrist, for which there is approximately a nine-month wait period.

She also said that she was told to bring her daughter back to the hospital if her situation worsens.

“How can I say to someone who is saying, ‘I want to kill myself right now,’ well, you just hang in there for a little while, dear. In nine months time, we might be able to get you some help,” Haynes said.

“For me, as her mother, to see her in that amount of distress and not be able to help her, that breaks my heart into a million pieces.”

Months later, Haynes’ daughter’s situation did worsen and they returned to the hospital.

“She was put into a rubber room with blood on the walls,” Haynes said. “If I brought her in with a broken arm or an asthma attack, she wouldn’t have been put into a rubber room with a three-inch steel door.”

However, Haynes said that the nurses and doctors are not to blame for the struggles.

“I have to say that the staff is incredible – they were really nice. They tried ever-so-hard to do something for us, but there was nothing they could do. Their hands are tied,” Haynes said.

Many at the discussion said they felt that they were treated differently based on their illnesses.

Swann mentioned that he wasn’t aware a stigma still existed for those suffering from a mental health illness. But he said that people had approached him that night to say they feel ostracized and ashamed about their illness.

Dr. Avalon Roberts speaks to about 80 visitors at the Hillhurst Sunnyside Community Centre as part of the guest panel. She discussed her distaste for the health care services provided to people suffering from mental health.

Photo by Drew Henn “It’s the same as any other illness,” Swann said, “There’s a chemical imbalance in most cases; nobody is to blame for it.”

Clem Martini, a University of Calgary professor, discussed his own personal hardships with mental health: “My younger brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and, ultimately, committed suicide.

“A few years after that, my older brother was also diagnosed with schizophrenia. Together our family has worked very hard to permit a successful outcome.”

Raising awareness

Swann noted that one of the first steps to achieving a successful outcome is to have these community discussions.

“People come together and they realize there’s support here,” Swann said.

He said that through community gatherings, health care personnel could better understand where the system is failing and then can communicate a plan to get it repaired.

Swann said that doing this will create awareness to those politicians who “have no idea” about these issues.

“They sit up there and just throw money at things,” he said. “If it’s not actually reaching the people and not actually connecting with what their real need is, than we’re just putting a Band-Aid on the problem.”

Haynes said that she wants to see a change in the waiting time for potentially suicidal patients who are in need to see a specialist.

“Let’s not wait nine months to see if they kill themselves,” she said.

Fred Horne, Alberta’s Health Minister, didn’t respond to multiple requests for an interview to discuss mental health care in the province.

dhenn@cjournal.ca 

What is your view on the current issues around helping people with mental health problems in Calgary? Please share your comments below.