“This is not about politics. It’s simply the right thing to do.”
– Demi Lovato addressing the DNC on the need for mental health investment and policy change

This system is broken.

There I was again, locked in a seclusion room on the second floor of a psychiatric facility.  Trapped in a dilapidated hospital ward. I was a “frequent flyer”. That’s what the nurses called us – the patients unable to break the cycle of repeat hospitalizations. Unable to exit the revolving door. We had fallen through the system’s cracks. We deserved better.

It was dark. The nurses had shut off the lights. An attempt to calm me, no doubt. The Haldol injection would take time to kick in. I stood up, carefully took three steps forward, and then smashed my fists against the cold metal door.

“Let me out!” I screamed. “Why am I here again?”

I had so many questions. I still do. As an individual who has struggled with schizoaffective disorder, OCD, and substance abuse for thirteen years (nearly half my life), I demand change. We should all demand change.

Few seem to grasp the consequences and staggering costs associated with untreated mental health challenges: costs borne by those who struggle with mental illness and addiction, their families and society as a whole. Mental health challenges can, if left untreated, lead to suicide, substance abuse, homelessness, and chronic physical illness. I’ve been around the block a few times, and I’ve seen people lose their lives to diseases of the mind.  This is an epidemic. It’s time to invest in a cure.

This system is underfunded and overburdened. It lacks the resources to keep up with a rising demand for mental health infrastructure and accessible programs and services. Psychiatric emergency rooms are overflowing with patients awaiting beds (some patients must wait days before being transferred to an appropriate facility). Many in urgent need of help are being placed on long waitlists for vital treatment and care. Others are left unaware of essential programs and services as they struggle to navigate a convoluted mental healthcare system. To compound matters, psychiatric wards are seeing patients return to hospital time and time again due to insufficient community mental health supports.

This system is broken. I lost ten years of my life cycling in and out of hospital. It took ten years to receive the lifesaving psychiatric intervention I needed. Given the severity of my illness and absence of suitable treatment facilities in Canada, the BC provincial government eventually paid to have me treated at an intensive Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) centre, located in Wisconsin. It cost the BC provincial government $90,000 US to send me to this CBT centre. Had there been a suitable facility closer to home, the cost of my treatment would have been a fraction of this price.

Upon my return home, I was referred to an Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team. Two and a half years into my recovery, I was transferred due to the team’s overwhelming caseload. Following my transfer, I waited months to see a clinic therapist, only to relapse before I could receive therapy essential to my recovery.

This system is stretched dangerously thin. But my story needn’t be the norm. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting early intervention can unburden our strained mental healthcare system.  Research shows that treating mental health challenges early leads to fewer relapses, fewer hospitalizations, and better overall prognoses – reducing the costs associated with mental illness and substance abuse. Programs offering mental health education can also reduce the incidence of relapse and hospitalization, and in some cases, may prevent mental illness entirely. Sadly, hospital psych wards and mental health clinics are notoriously poor at educating patients and their families.

Additional funding for mental healthcare is desperately needed in Canada. We, as mental healthcare consumers and providers, must advocate for greater investment in mental health infrastructure, programs, and services. Investing in treatment facilities, social housing, and community mental health supports would go a long way towards promoting recovery for many who struggle with mental health challenges.

We must see mental health and physical health as being equally important. In BC, the Canadian Mental Health Association has begun their B4Stage4 campaign, hoping to change the way we think about mental illness and addiction. By shining a spotlight on the value of prevention and early intervention, they want to ensure our system of care treats mental illness, addiction and physical illness equally.  The campaign’s analogy is straightforward. Physicians would never knowingly wait until stage 4 to treat cancer, and the same should be true when it comes to mental health challenges. B4Stage4 calls for mental health education and screening, and emphasizes treatment in the early stages of mental illness and addiction.

My story needn’t be the norm. And there is hope for change.  Ask yourselves and your bureaucrats, policymakers and politicians: what’s the right thing to do?

For more information on CMHA’s B4Stage4 campaign, visit http://www.b4stage4.ca/ 

GET LOUD on Twitter using #b4stage4

About Andrew Woods

Having been diagnosed with Schizoaffective disorder and OCD at the age of seventeen (while attending the University of Victoria), my struggle with mental illness has been a full spectrum experience. I have made much progress since my last hospitalization (three and a half years ago). I returned to university, eventually earning a degree in Economics and a diploma in Business Administration. Today, I have aspirations of following a career in writing and communications. Currently, I spend my time as a mental health volunteer, working as a mental health navigator, exhibitor and communications support volunteer.

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