Pamela is nearing the boundary of despair. The Calgary mother is working relentlessly to get mental health care for her 15-year-old daughter. She describes Alberta’s mental health system as a maze that she can’t navigate alone.
Pam’s daughter (she has asked us not to identify their last name) suffers from complex mental issues. She was adopted at eight years old after spending the first years of her life with an abusive birth mother and in a series of deficient foster homes. Pam says she and her husband knew their child’s history could affect her behaviour and development, but they weren’t prepared for the difficulty they would face in accessing mental health care when that behaviour escalated to panic attacks, anxiety, depression and self-mutilation.
Her daughter began cutting and burning herself in 2011, and with increased frequency over the past six months. The teen is on months-long waiting lists for psychiatric treatment.
“I’ve taken her to the hospital several times for self-harm,” says Pam. “But the thing is they’ve only got 12 acute care beds for youth. The fact is that she does need that level of care but it’s not available.”
Pam is contacting anyone she thinks could help, to little effect. She has written to academics; to Health Minister Fred Horne and Human Services Minister Dave Hancock; to journalists; to Alberta Health Services staff; to the Alberta Psychiatry Association and the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). Her letters detail her daughter’s worsening condition, include photos of what she has done to herself, and end with Pam pleading for help. Little of her correspondence has been answered, let alone won her child the care Pam says she desperately needs.
“When my daughter burned herself with cigarettes more than 50 times, she couldn’t get into the mental health ward, but I had no trouble getting her into the burn clinic,” Pam lamented in her May 1 letter to the Alberta division of the CMHA. “There are lots of lovely studies on your site and lots of evidence that says the services suck, but I don’t know if those have actually accomplished anything tangible.”
Jillian Dacyk, CMHA’s administrative assistant, wrote back to Pam that her story was “heart-rending,” and told her she would forward her letter to the organization’s executive director, Tom Shand. Shand says he has been busy and hasn’t read Pam’s letter, but there isn’t much the CMHA can do. “I really don’t know the specifics at this point in time.... We’re not equipped ourselves to do very much, almost regardless of what the person’s concerns may be,” he says.
In February, Horne responded to Pam’s January 7 letter: “I recognize that having access to services has been a concern for you and your family. I assure you that addiction and mental health is a priority for the Government of Alberta, and we are working collaboratively to improve mental health services for all populations, including children and youth. Through implementation of Creating Connections: Alberta’s Addiction and Mental Health Strategy, the Ministry of Health and Alberta Health Services are working to improve access to child and youth addiction and mental health assessment and treatment, to enhance programs and services, and to strengthen co-ordination and collaboration across sectors.” He then directed Pam to contact Access Mental Health.
Access Mental Health is a phone line operated by Alberta Health Services as an access point for the entire mental health network, helping potential patients get optimum treatment. However, as Pam discovered, each health zone in the province has only two operators, one for adult mental health and one for child and youth, to handle all the calls — even though each caller may take an hour of consultation. She couldn’t even get through.
Over the Victoria Day weekend, Pam and her daughter returned to the Alberta Children’s Hospital. Pam wrote of the experience to Brian Malloy, the executive director of Access and Early Intervention at Alberta Health Service’s Addiction and Mental Health.
“Friday night I took my daughter to the Children’s Hospital because she said she wanted to cut and didn’t think she could stop herself. Even though we both knew the mental health team would not arrive until 8 a.m. she still wanted to go…. Saturday morning she did see the psychiatrist on staff…. He agreed that she needed treatment, but there were no beds available.... I was able to get her into Hull Secure Services Saturday night, but she managed to smuggle a razor into the facility. That night she cut herself more than 10 times on her left forearm, resulting in 126 stitches. Hull sent her to the Rockyview. She waited in ER for seven hours to be seen by the ER doctor. She waited another six hours to be seen by the psych team. They too agreed that she needed treatment but there were no youth beds.” Malloy declined to be interviewed for this story.
Ministers Horne and Hancock were both unavailable for comment. Bruce Conway of AHS Calgary Zone media relations did not respond to questions regarding youth mental health services statistics before press time, nor did Alberta Health spokesperson John Muir in regards to what the service priorities are in Alberta’s mental health strategy.
Muir did say there are roughly 1,500 dedicated mental health beds available provincewide. That equates to one bed for every 2,500 Albertans, or 37 beds per 100,000 population. According to the province’s Mental Health Patient Advocate’s 2012 report, in the 1950s there were 370 beds for every 100,000 Albertans.
Pam wrote again to Horne the evening her daughter mutilated herself at Hull’s facility: “A couple of months ago you sent me a letter saying that you had a 10-year plan in place. My daughter could very well be dead by then, if she keeps going the way she has been. If that is the case I will be holding you and your policies accountable. I have had to fight to get her access to even the most basic of resources to keep her safe in a maze of unavailable, disconnected, poorly funded and confusing services. I am exhausted, afraid for my daughter’s safety, and extremely pissed off. I expect you to do something now, not 10 years from now. Get off your ass and fix it.”