2 young women upset about their psychiatric treatment at Victoria hospital call for change

·5 min read
Emma Epp, left, and Ella Hale, right, spoke out after they felt mistreated by staff working in Royal Jubilee Hospital's Psychiatric Emergency Services department. (Submitted by Emma Epp - image credit)
Emma Epp, left, and Ella Hale, right, spoke out after they felt mistreated by staff working in Royal Jubilee Hospital's Psychiatric Emergency Services department. (Submitted by Emma Epp - image credit)

Ella Hale,18, and Emma Epp,19, have been involved in the mental health system since they were children, but they say their transition to the adult system when they turned 17 was a shock.

The two had been treated at Victoria General Hospital' s pediatric psychiatric unit until they turned 17.

As Victoria residents, they say one of the main issues of aging into the adult system was the treatment they received at the capital city's Royal Jubilee Hospital. After voicing their concerns on social media, they found they were not alone.

"Having to go to Royal Jubilee Hospital's Psychiatric Emergency Service (PES) is terrifying," said Epp. "My brother had cancer for his whole life … [But] my mom says she would rather have a kid with cancer than a kid with mental illness, I think that shows how broken our system is."

Hale said she was concerned that PES staff did not take her seriously enough.

"Your mental health isn't as much of a priority ... they have so many people that are trying to help that they are not able to give everybody the attention they deserve or the attention they are giving is next to nothing and extremely harmful," she said.

Taking it public

The two women, who are also friends, were so upset by their experiences, they started social media pages where other people could share theirs.

A Facebook group they launched called "PES: a Pathetic Excuse for Support," now has over 1,400 members.

"When we started this page, there was a little hope in me that it wouldn't get as big as it has, because if it got big, it would mean that people are hurt and people are struggling," said Hale, adding she has read more than 100 stories so far.

Epp said the common thread among the stories is that people feel dismissed by PES staff.

Meeting with leaders

Since starting the Facebook group, Epp and Hale have met with Premier John Horgan, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson, as well as with the leadership at Royal Jubilee Hospital's PES.

The Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria, B.C., provides care to residents of Vancouver Island and is overseen by the local health authority Island Health.
The Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria, B.C., provides care to residents of Vancouver Island and is overseen by the local health authority Island Health.(Mike McArthur/CBC)

Epp said the meeting with Horgan and Malcolmson went "OK."

"They were saying that there is not much they can do since they are too high up, but they told us to keep doing what we were doing, keep telling people to share their stories," she said.

Hale said in the meeting with PES leaders, the pair were told the issues were due to a lack of funding, which Hale found unacceptable.

"At a certain point, somebody needs to take accountability ... It's not all of Jubilee. I've had an amazing experience on a medical floor with psychiatrists and nurses. It's isolated to PES. I refuse to accept that it's just a lack of funding," said Hale.

Working conditions

Christine Sorensen, the president of the B.C. Nurses Union, said she was impressed by Hale and Epp's courage in speaking up but that nurses working at Royal Jubilee Hospital's PES are trying their best under tough conditions.

"They are struggling to provide care every day under very difficult circumstances, not only in this unit, the psych emergency services, but also because so many mental health patients are placed inappropriately in acute care facilities," she said during an interview on CBC's All Points West.

Sorensen said often people enter the emergency department of the hospital under mental duress and are placed in loud noisy environments that are not good for their mental condition. She agreed with Hale and Epp that psychiatric nurses and staff have a dilemma with older teens

Christine Sorensen, the president of the B.C. Nurses Union, says the province should invest in more nurses and more mental health supports in general to improve care for psychiatric patients in B.C.
Christine Sorensen, the president of the B.C. Nurses Union, says the province should invest in more nurses and more mental health supports in general to improve care for psychiatric patients in B.C.(Jon Hernandez/CBC)

"The challenge is, are you a child or are you an adult? Is it appropriate to place young adults, late-stage teenagers, with adults or do we place them with children?" said Sorensen.

She also stressed the burnout rate is high among all nurses and that 60 per cent of nurses in 2020 were showing signs of emotional exhaustion and she imagines that has only worsened since.

Sorensen suggests the province invest in training more nurses, of which, she says, there is a shortage and put more money into mental health services in general.

Committed to improvement

Island Health, the authority that oversees the hospital said in a statement to CBC it is aware of the concerns many people have expressed about their experiences at PES and take them seriously.

The health authority said it was committed to having clinical and non-clinical senior mental health and substance-use leadership on site at PES in the coming weeks "to better understand the experience and challenges of both patients and staff."

Island Health's director of mental health and substance use services met with Hale and Epp on March 16 and the statement commended both young women for their courage and for creating a platform for others to speak out.

The Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, in a statement Friday to CBC, said it recognizes that demand for services at PES, in terms of volume of people and acuity of needs, continues to increase. It says renovations were done on the space in 2017 to improve patients' experiences and enhance staff safety.

The statement also said the province is investing in programs to recruit and train new health care providers and that between Dec. 31, 2017 and Feb. 26, 2021 the number of practicing registered psychiatric nurses in B.C. increased from 2,725 to 3,077.

"We will continue working to ensure that everyone can access the services they need, when they need them, and are treated with the dignity and care they deserve," said the ministry.

Ultimately, Epp and Hale say they will not stop until they see action and will keep encouraging others to come forward.

"We need people to stand up and we need people to say this is not OK," said Hale. "Every story that we've gotten is a step closer to making change."

LISTEN | Emma Epp and Ella Hale talk to CBC's All Points West about their experiences at PES: