I recently attended a focus group where participants were asked to share their experiences with mental health services here in BC, mainly in Victoria. I saw this as a very valuable opportunity to share and discuss our individual experiences. The group was divided into family members and service users. I attended as a family member. A common theme amongst most of the participants in my group was that mental health services and support services were very difficult to locate and access. One person described that help only happens “if all the stars and moons are lined up.” Another person commented that “you have to be one of the lucky ones to get help”, a dismal outlook for someone just starting out in the system. I shared similar thoughts. Many times I have questioned why so many mental health services are kept ‘secret’. Even the facilitator agreed that he hears the same complaint over and over again. After the meeting, these concerns stuck with me for days and I found myself having mixed feelings over them. Why were services so hard to access? I thought about our situation when my husband experienced psychosis for the first time and came up with a few thoughts.
A quick internet search entering “Mental health services Victoria BC” immediately lists 16 organizations that are here in Victoria that are able to provide immediate assistance and valuable information to anyone who calls. Sounds reasonably easy doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. For starters, there’s the chaos, shock and confusion that comes along with a mental health crisis! We were completely unprepared for what we now politely call our “mental health journey.” My husband was experiencing psychosis and we were both very confused and scared. We had no idea what was happening and no idea that his suffering was even a mental health issue. With no prior experience, we did not know what was happening. We had no idea how to even explain the situation, let alone where to get help. We didn’t know the right words to use. Lack of experience and mental health education seriously hindered our pursuit for help.
Stigma and acceptance also hindered our search for help. The stigma attached to mental illness can be debilitating for some. No one wants to admit they have a mental problem for fear of being ostracized, ridiculed or marginalized. Our minds searched for any other explanation before we accepted the possibility of mental illness.
One of the mistakes I subsequently made was incorrectly assuming that appointments and information would simply fall into our hands. In the beginning, I relied on the system to lay down a path for us that we could easily navigate. Unfortunately, there isn’t a ‘yellow brick road’. You have to be the driver in your own mental health journey and if you are not able, then you seriously need a competent advocate. It is a very difficult system to navigate. Diagnosis can take a long time and no one really knows what’s coming next. You have to stay on top of things.
Another mistake was waiting for people to get back to us. Mental healthcare in Canada is overloaded and underfunded and if it weren’t for our persistence, we would have slipped through the cracks and we’d still be waiting for something as important as a psychiatrist.
Thankfully, there are positives to the mental healthcare system. Once you make it into the system and receiving good care, good things start to happen. Wellness becomes a reality and what once seemed like a hopeless situation turns into recovery and remission. There are some very kind, caring, helpful people out there and there are many support services available. There are even support services for family members and caregivers. I found a support group specifically for spouses of people affected by mental illness at the BC Schizophrenia Society. They deal with all mental illnesses not just schizophrenia.
People have to be their own advocates and take responsibility for their wellness, and in order to do that they have to be educated. Perhaps adding a mental illness component to first aid training and including a section in health courses during high school could help. People need to learn the words. We all seem to know a little first aid and how to access emergency help when someone is experiencing a physical health crisis like a heart attack or anaphylactic shock. Yet very few people know what to do during a mental health crisis. The services are out there but for now, your best bet may be to Google it.
About Marion Gibson
Marion is the author of Unfaithful Mind, a memoir detailing her family’s journey through a significant mental health crisis. She is an advocate of mental health awareness working to break down the stigma of mental illness. She is now pursuing an education in mental health and addictions and working on her second book. Marion lives in Victoria, BC with her family. You can follow Marion at the HMC Supportive Minds blog here or on Facebook and Twitter.