'This is a provincial funding issue': Waterloo Region residents with mental illnesses struggle to access care

·6 min read

CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses difficult topics such suicide ideation, which may be triggering to a person's mental health. If you are having suicidal thoughts, there is help. The Canada Suicide Prevention Service can be reached at 1-833-456-4566 24-hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year or online at www.crisisservicescanada.ca. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911.

Sabrina Johnson spends most of her time on the phone these days, bouncing between calling doctors’ offices, emergency rooms and private psychiatric facilities. Her father, a Cambridge resident, has borderline personality disorder, a mental illness that makes emotional regulation difficult and often affects a person’s self-image. This past year, Johnson’s father lost 45 pounds, and spent most days crying while struggling with suicide ideation.

“My father went through a traumatic event two years ago, and we have been trying to fight for him and advocate for him in the system,” says Johnson. But accessing care in Waterloo Region for an individual with a psychiatric illness has proven increasingly difficult. Johnson’s father has been hospitalized for short periods of time before being discharged.

When faced with further difficulties, he often turns to his family doctor, who then determines that Johnson’s father is in crisis mode and must return to the hospital emergency room. In psychiatric wards, Johnson claims he does not receive ongoing psychiatric care and counselling, forcing him to search for private outpatient care, which can be expensive. Such services also often refuse to admit patients who are in acute crisis.

“Everybody says this is either out of my scope, or that he needs a more intense program,” says Johnson. “So where do you go to get stabilized when the hospital turns you away because they say that, by their standards, you’re not mentally ill enough?”

Helen Fishburn, CEO of Canadian Mental Health Association-Waterloo Wellington, says that long wait times for psychiatric care is not just a problem in the Waterloo and Guelph-Wellington region, but rather a provincial issue.

“We literally just don’t have enough resources in the mental health and addiction system to be able to respond to the demand of care,” says Fishburn. “This is a provincial funding issue across Ontario.”

One in five people in Canada will experience a mental health issue in any given year, and by age 40, 50% of Canadians will have experienced a mental illness, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. An article in the Western University’s Medical Journal states that mental illness cost the Canadian health-care system a conservatively estimated $48.6 billion in 2011, with a cumulative cost expected to exceed $2.3 trillion over the next 30 years.

Much of this cost is due to a lack of timely access to psychiatric services. In Ontario, government-mandated legislation monitors the reporting of wait times for key health services, but not for psychiatry. Only 63 per cent of people who have been hospitalized for depression received a followup visit from a physician within 30 days of discharge — in those same 30 days, 25 per cent of depressed patients either revisited the emergency department or were rehospitalized, according to studies in Western’s Medical Journal.

This was true for Leah Feeney, who struggles with general anxiety disorder, anorexia, borderline personality disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, a condition that features a pattern of unwanted thoughts that leads to repetitive behaviours. Feeney has been hospitalized at least seven times throughout Waterloo Region.

According to Feeney’s mother, Doreen Feeney, part of why her daughter is struggling to recover is because she has simply been prescribed various medications without being listened to or having an adequate chance to share her thoughts, feelings and medical history.

“The system failed her early on and continues to fail her,” says Doreen Feeney. “The people who are supposed to be helping her don’t have a clue about what they’re talking about.”

This past year, Feeney was released from Grand River Hospital despite feeling suicidal. She later went to the emergency room at Cambridge Memorial Hospital, where she had to beg to be admitted despite being suicidal. According to Feeney and her mother, staff told her that she didn’t need to be there. In response to a query regarding this event from Cambridge Times, Cambridge Memorial Hospital says that it does not comment on individual cases for privacy reasons.

“If you go into the mental health system, expect to have to pull your own weight because a lot of the time people just don’t understand the gravity of your situation,” says Feeney.

Cambridge resident Chantal Kelly has also noticed that it is hard to receive ongoing psychiatric care unless a person is in crisis. Kelly’s husband has battled depression for years. He was prescribed medication for depression approximately 30 years ago, but recently he’s experienced continual panic attacks. Kelly and her husband have waited over a month to see a psychiatrist and say that the Canadian Mental Health Association wait-list for adult psychiatry is months long.

Speaking about accessing care Kelly says, “Does it have to come down to somebody having a breakdown or teetering on the edge of taking their own life before anybody takes notice ... I just feel like people slip through the cracks with respect to mental health.”

Mental health advocates like Fishburn say that better psychiatric care might be on the horizon with the appointment of a new mental health and addictions cabinet minister who is expected to roll out $4.5 billion in federal health transfers to the provinces and territories over the next five years. This would result in high-quality, free mental health care for all, if the Liberals follow through on their pledge.

In the meantime, Fishburn says that there is hope for individuals in the Waterloo Region. The Canadian Mental Health Association Waterloo-Wellington, has a Here 24/7 crisis support line (1-844-437-3247), where service co-ordinators take the time to listen and offer help to patients who are waiting on long-term care options such as adult psychiatry.

CMHA-WW’s virtual Bounce Back program is also immediately available and offers people a phone coach who assists them in managing anxiety, depression and various mental illnesses. CMHA-WW is also available to offer coping strategies, connect to people’s family doctors, and offers webinars on resilience and coping strategies.

“There is a formal recognition in our health-care system that mental health and addictions needs attention and priority,” says Fishburn.

STORY BEHIND THE STORY: After sources reached out to Cambridge Times about the difficulties of getting help while living with a mental illness, reporter Genelle Levy decided to explore the barriers that come with accessing psychiatric care in Waterloo Region.

Correction -- November 16, 2021: This article has been edited from a previous version that mistakenly said that 1 in 5 Canadians will experience mental illness over the course of their lifetime. In fact 1 in 5 Canadians experience mental illness in any given year.

Genelle Levy, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cambridge Times

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting