A town hall meeting Wednesday night organized by St. John’s Centre MHA Gerry Rogers addressed the needs and concerns of those seeking and requiring mental health care and support. St. Teresa’s Parish Hall was filled with over 300 people, suggesting that this is an area in dire need of increased and improved infrastructure. Rogers introduced herself, but left most of the talking to the panel and public, emphasizing that “this evening is about a community coming together and having a conversation.”
A panel of six psychiatric survivors and advocates shared their experiences with mental illness and the healthcare system, as well as their visions for the future of mental healthcare in the province. After the panellists spoke, attendees had the opportunity to discuss their own experiences, concerns and visions.
Although each person’s experience of mental illness is unique, there were some recurring themes that emerged throughout the evening. One such concern is the lack of timely access to programs, or even information about programs. Paula Corcoran, the executive director of the Consumers’ Health Awareness Network of Newfoundland and Labrador (CHANNAL) indicated that there are approximately 25 programs addressing mental health and addiction in the province, but nobody in attendance was able to identify all of them.
“The services are there,” Corcoran said, “but it’s about access to the services. How do we get into the services, and when we get there, do we get the treatment that we deserve and that we need?” A number of attendees expressed that it seems you must know somebody within the system in order to be placed. Others complained of excessive wait-times to access services. When facing a mental health crisis, whether it be suicidal thoughts or addiction, immediate care can make the difference between life and death.
Another concern raised was the lack of consistent, appropriate care when a consumer of mental healthcare is admitted to the hospital or to a service. “People who have gone into the mental health system have been traumatized by the mental health system,” said Roger Baggs, a mental health worker and advocate.
“What I don’t like is treatment that is not consistent,” he continued. “I go to one ward and I’m treated one way, I go to another ward and I’m treated another way. I go to a short-stay unit and I’m judged – ‘Why are you here?’ I call the crisis line and I’m not engaged, you know, people don’t ask me how I’m doing. They don’t try to keep a conversation going with me, they leave me hanging on the line. And I am the person who is in a mental health crisis, you know, and our system really really needs to be better. You know, there needs to be no judgement, and as far as I’m concerned, if you don’t want to work with mental health, then don’t … because you’re hurting us, and you’re damaging us, and we feel that pain and then we have to go on, we have to recover from that. And that’s unacceptable in 2014.”
The disproportionately high rate of incarcerated individuals with mental health issues was another principal concern for those in attendance, with one panelist suggesting that prisons are the new mental institutions. Indeed, a report released by the federal government in December reads, “[m]ental health problems or illnesses among inmates in the federal correctional system are up to three times as common as in the Canadian population at large.”
Getting to the root of it all
Andy Jones, who (along with his wife Mary-Lynn Bernard) has spoken openly and publicly about his son Louis’ suicide following years of suffering from a serious mental illness, observed that all of the problems surrounding mental health care stem from the same root cause – stigma.
“Why is it that there’s no money for mental health as opposed to physical health? It’s because there’s this stigma that there’s something frightening,” Jones said. “The other attitude I get sometimes is that it’s somebody’s own fault [that] they have mental illness, which nobody ever says about any other illness. And that stigma is even within the mental health system itself.”
Jones’ view was echoed by other members of the panel. Mark Gruchy, a criminal defence attorney and the president of the Canadian Mental Health Association observed that while we now know better than to judge others based on race, gender or sexual orientation, we aren’t quite there with people who experience a “state of being different from the norm.”
“I would like to see a world where people who come up from childhood knowing they have a particular issue don’t think of themselves as being different in a negative way, but think of themselves as being legitimately different, different in a valid sense, and different in a way that does meaningfully contribute to society – and not just now, but always has,” he said.
The way forward
The stigma that still surrounds mental illness inhibits those suffering from speaking out about their experiences, and the experiences of their family members. “This is an illness that people die from, and they’re dying because people refuse to talk about it,” Corcoran said. But with the town hall meeting at full capacity, it is clear that people are ready to begin the conversation – about where we are, where we need to go, and how to get there.
“The only way [we will get the services and facilities needed] is if we keep pressure on the people who are making these decisions to ensure that they realize just how pressing and difficult a social problem this is, and we demand to be respected,” Gruchy said.
Gerry Rogers closed the meeting with the promise of more to come, and indicated she would exert some pressure on the ministers of health and justice to be in attendance. In the House of Assembly on Thursday, Rogers asked Health Minister and Topsail MHA Paul Davis if he would commit to developing a comprehensive mental health strategy for Newfoundland and Labrador that would include a public consultation process. Davis said the Department of Health and Community Services sent representatives to the public event. He also said that he “cannot overstate how important mental health and addictions is to the people of the Province,” and that he had asked for further explanation and review on the matter.
Rogers then asked Davis if he would “strike an all-party committee to address the crisis in mental health services in the Province?” Davis responded by pointing out that 900 people work in mental health services within the province, that the government spends approximately $100 million annually on mental health services, and that they work with 10 partner community organizations. He did not answer Rogers’ question.
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