Calgary woman on ‘merry-go-round’ trying to get mental health treatment

Danielle says she can’t remember how many times she’s been to emergency departments getting stitches after harming herself or seeking help for bouts of sadness and anxiety.

“I’m on a merry-go-round where I keep getting reconnected to the same services that, frankly, have not worked in the past,” Danielle said.

“I feel like the only reason I’m getting any sort of attention is because I’m demanding it. I’m going to the hospital and I’m refusing to leave, and I’m just refusing to go away.”

The Calgary woman in her 20s has long suffered from mental health issues, but she says her condition was made far worse by a sex assault four years ago.

CBC News isn’t publishing her last name to protect her identity.

Acute care beds often full

Calgary emergency rooms are seeing rising numbers of patients with mental health concerns, sometimes spending days waiting to be admitted. According to the provincial health authority, it’s not unusual for Calgary’s roughly 200 acute care mental health beds for adults to be full.

In the 2017-18 fiscal year, Calgary area emergency rooms saw 30,000 visits from patients whose primary concern was their mental health, according to Alberta Health Services.

About 77 per cent of them were treated and discharged home and referred to community supports, if needed. The remaining 23 per cent were admitted to an inpatient bed.

“The vast majority of those patients received the care they needed, when they needed it,” the health authority said in a statement, adding it has opened 30 mental health beds in Calgary since 2015.

Dr. Eddy Lang, head of emergency medicine in Calgary, says ER departments seem to serve as the system’s “safety valve.” (Submitted by Dr. Eddy Lang)

From April 2017 to March 2018, patients with mental health challenges spent an average of 18 hours in emergency departments, from the the time staff decided to admit them, to the time they were moved to the inpatient unit.

“We are sometimes feeling like the safety valve for the system,” Dr. Eddy Lang, head of emergency medicine in Calgary, told the Calgary Eyeopener last week.

“When there are insufficient beds upstairs for people who do need to come in, they often spend extended periods of time with us in the emergency department.”

Nowhere else to go

Danielle said she often ends up in the ER because she feels she has nowhere else to go. Her latest visit was a few days ago.

She had earlier been admitted to an outpatient program that offered therapy, counselling and help with coping skills. But she said she was ultimately turned away because she has a service dog, which helps her deal with stressful environments.

A nurse “gave me a list of phone numbers in Calgary of, like, Calgary Counselling Services, and sent me home,” Danielle said.

The next day, she tried to go back, but was again rebuffed.

“So I went to the ER because I didn’t know where else I was supposed to go,” she said.

“I just wanted someone to give me the help that I keep being promised but denied.”

Government gives $35M in grants

Health Minister Sarah Hoffman wasn’t available for an interview. In a statement, she said: “We know that access to mental health supports in Calgary and across the province has been a challenge.”

Hoffman noted the NDP government ordered a review of mental health and addictions treatment early in its mandate and later granted about $35 million to community groups to implement the plan.

Among the agencies that received funds so far is the Calgary Counselling Centre to expand its services, allowing an additional 1,100 Albertans to receive counselling. There has also been cash for suicide prevention and youth programs.

The independent review of the mental health system found “poor co-ordination and integration of services,” and a lack of collaboration between the Alberta government and the provincial health authority.

The report cited studies from 2012 and 2014 that found many Albertans reported at least one of their needs weren’t met when they tried to get help, and the most common complaint was they couldn’t get counselling.

Waiting on the wait list

Years later, Danielle said she has long struggled to find a therapist or psychiatrist who can help her.

Still, after her latest stint at the ER, she said a nurse is following up with her to make sure she’s doing OK while she waits to get into another outpatient program.

After sitting on a wait list for five months, she learned last week she may get a spot at the end of October.

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