Mother laments lack of care

Daughter struggles in Alberta's mental health system (TRIGGER WARNING: self-injury)

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.”


Comments: 11

crystal28 wrote:

This article is in dire need of a self-injury trigger warning. Please consider adding one and removing the triggering photo from the main page's photo slider.

on May 23rd, 2013 at 8:32am Report Abuse

Drew Anderson wrote:


on May 23rd, 2013 at 9:53am Report Abuse

crystal28 wrote:

Thank you!

on May 23rd, 2013 at 10:09am Report Abuse

casiomatrixsets wrote:

It is the new age. So the psychedelic researchers should be able to use some psychedelic healing therapy and some dream therapy and everything will be strawberry fields forever.

on May 23rd, 2013 at 4:34pm Report Abuse

KDg wrote:

So, Brian Malloy DECLINES to be interviewed ~ refuses to answer for this ~ but still gets to take home a fat paycheque from the public purse.
Ministers Horne and Hancock were both "unavailable for comment" ~ elected BY the people and supposedly ACCOUNTABLE...where is the recourse?!
These people need to stop getting paycheques until they start doing their jobs and answering to the public who pays them.

This kid's mother is doing everything humanly possible and she's stuck spinning her wheels. What happens to the kids whose parents can't or won't or don't know how?

on May 26th, 2013 at 11:56am Report Abuse

MomK wrote:

I deeply sympathize with Pam - our son nearly died due to bullying six months ago and his mental health care since then has been profoundly disappointing - especially when compared to the level of care that is provided for children with other life-threatening issues - like cancer. There are almost no resources available for children with mental health issues. The very few kids who do get into the rare beds at the Alberta Children's Hospital are stuffed in the basement of ACH or they get surplus Oncology beds. The rest go home and the parents are told to try to navigate the system or find resources themselves. There is no follow-up, no support.
We hear a lot about plans and we see nothing - how many kids have to die before we do something? Why do our kids deserve to die when other children get premium care and community support?

on May 28th, 2013 at 12:57pm Report Abuse

Agent666 wrote:

What the heck is a "self-injury trigger"? Does this mean that someone will slash themselves, whenever an unpleasant photo is seen? And will, say, a liquor ad in ffwd make an alky fall off the wagon? Sorry to be facecious, but where does this paranoia of causing offense stop?

The segregation of paediatric and adult health is a colossal waste of money. How much money has been poured into facilities like the Children's Hospital, for example, that could have been better spent on integrated care? Children have the same organs and brains as adults, and we don't need this sort of duplication in the health system.

And family members need to realise that 'the system' can't do everything. Having spent years assisting in the care of two elderly relatives (one with dementia, the other mobility issues), I can justifiably be critical of people who think they can leave the care of loved ones in the hands of 'the professionals.' This is a family responsibility, and not the state's. This girl needs to be cared 24/7 AT HOME, by family members, even if this means a person having to take leave from work, or other tasks. Most traditional cultures accept this reality, but contemporary Westerners have bought into the disastrous Euro-style (or Quebec-style) fallacy of the paternalistic state and institutional healthcare system. I'm not a fan of the Alberta Government, but this is an area where the state needs to retreat and families step up.

on May 28th, 2013 at 10:12pm Report Abuse

dugger wrote:

Agent666, do you have to practice to be that boorish and ill-informed; or does it just come naturally for you?

on May 29th, 2013 at 7:54am Report Abuse

Agent666 wrote:


Again, people can't rely on third parties (governments, social workers, medical and paramedical providers) for everything. This girl has a family, and these are the people who need to be looking after her care. And, to reiterate, I just finished a lengthy and taxing in the homecare of a dying grandparent--no non-family support whatsoever. And I recently spoke with a man (Pakistani, observant Muslim) who did the same for his parents, and was appalled that people here outsource their family's healthcare--of which mental health is a part--to 'professionals.' ALL traditional cultures understand this. But, since the post-WW II era Westerners have been delegating what are family matters to state and other entities, as people abrogate their filial obligations with the encouragement of state authorities and medical personnel. This always ends badly--for people in need of care, and society as a whole.

This is just not financially sustainable. And this is a dangerous direction, socially, for a society to take. The Europeans went down this road long ago, and it's time for us to turn back while we can. We can't afford to have every child in daycare, every senior citizen in assisted living, and every person with a mental health issue in a psychiatric ward. There is no way to ensure quality of care, with this level of usage. This is why kids are being neglected in daycares, seniors abused in care centres, and mentally ill people languishing in psych care. If Pamela wants her daughter to receive the best care possible, she needs to be providing this herself, in her own home. If she needs to quit her job, or make other changes to her life whilst doing this, so be it. The family is still the indicated unit for social support and care, and no amount of statist, social-democratic social engineering can change this.

on May 29th, 2013 at 9:46am Report Abuse

Annanana wrote:

Agent 666, you are the absolute worst.

on May 29th, 2013 at 10:40am Report Abuse

Agent666 wrote:


And you are the absolute best, I presume. :)

Seriously, folks--you CANNOT rely on third parties. Medical personnel and social workers are defective substitutes for family members. If you want to care for your family members--whatever their affliction--you need to do it yourself. This is how people did things until the medical-social services complex pushed aside families, and this is still how traditional societies do things. Pamela did the wonderful thing of undertaking to adopt this girl; now she needs to keep her under her care. Keeping her daughter zonked on haloperidol and in restraints won't heal her, but 24/7 care from her mother will. And 'the system' simply can't afford covering all of these services, be it extended psychiatric care, or things like universal seniors' and childcare.

on May 29th, 2013 at 6:41pm Report Abuse

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