Pam Owen, HSABC/NUPGE member, tells her family's story of trying to navigate the difficult waters of the mental health system.
Vancouver (07 April 2014) — On April 1, to mark the expiry of Canada's Health Accord, the Health Sciences Association of B.C. (HSABC/NUPGE) held an open forum on mental health issues.
On the expiry of the Health Accord, HSABC/NUPGE highlights the need for more mental health support
"For the past three years, Prime Minister Harper has refused to meet with the provinces to discuss the renewal of the health accord. That means already strained health care service in BC will suffer. And woefully inadequate support for mental health care will deteriorate. We know that without support for mental health, things will get worse," said HSABC President Val Avery.
Panelist Dan Bilsker, who has 25 years' experience as a consulting psychologist in a hospital psychiatric unit and who now works in private practice, provided an overview of the structure of delivery of mental health services. He noted that the mental health system tends to devote intense resources to the population with the most severe needs, leaving little focus on people with mild to moderate needs — where early intervention can make all the difference in the world.
"It is remarkable that we don't routinely teach people psychological self care," he said. "The challenge is to make it accessible."
Improving communication essential to increasing access to mental health services
Ingrid Söchting, an HSABC/NUPGE member and Chief Psychologist for Richmond Mental Health Outpatient Services, pointed to communications challenges in mental health care delivery as an area that can be improved to increase access to services. A siloed approach to mental health often means that work being done with a patient during in-patient service, for example, is not communicated to the staff of programs working with the same patient on an out-patient basis.
"It is important to have better communication vertically. Decision makers could benefit tremendously if they actually consulted with front-line workers who have a wealth of experience and truly are clinical experts," she said. She added that front-line workers should feel supported when they speak up about challenges they identify in the system, and be encouraged to contribute ideas aimed at improving service delivery.
Another key to improving service is having access to appropriate mental health resources, Söchting said.
"It's not uncommon that I hear about people who for something as simple as panic disorder have 14 emergency room visits, and nobody suggesting that they get some cognitive behavioural therapy for their highly treatable panic disorder," she continued. And, Söchting said, it is vital that people are placed appropriately. "When not placed appropriately, terrible things can happen."
Moving personal stories shared about working in and using the mental health system
Pam Owen, an HSABC/NUPGE union activist and recreational therapist who works in mental health programs, knows all too well what inappropriate placement can mean for mental health service providers.
Owen joined the panel to tell her story — as a health care provider and as the parent of a child who struggles with mental health and addictions issues.
As a parent, she has spent the past several years advocating for support for her daughter, who started high school as a bright, athletic and involved student, but who quickly began to spiral out of control. In contact with the school, Owen did not find support. They concluded that her daughter just wasn't trying hard enough and that she wasn't interested.
"The joy of supporting her with her sporting and music events had been replaced by police visits, psychiatrist visits, family counselling. She was in and out of emergency. Then she would be released. No assessment. No information. Without any support. And zero follow up."
As the family struggled with finding support for their daughter, Owen continued to work and in 2012, as a result of a fractured system of care that saw a patient inappropriately placed in a program, Owen almost lost her life at work. The incident led to a nine-month investigation by WorkSafe B.C., and a criminal charge against the client.
The judge found the client's condition had been destabilized by moving from Riverview, and said it was clear from the psychiatric report that the client was not amenable to treatment and would not get better. Crown stated he needed to be in a locked ward and that the onus was on the employer to ensure staff are safe.
The client eventually was returned to hospital, and assaulted two other staff members.
More emphasis needed on prevention and intervention
As a health care provider, Owen has felt abandoned and is speaking out to advocate for safety for workers. As a mother, she has felt abandoned by a system that doesn't provide support.
"Moving forward it is important that I use my voice to tell my story so changes can happen. We need to make a cultural shift and place more emphasis on prevention and intervention, especially with the adolescent population.
"There needs to be a cultural shift allowing direct care staff, family members and consumers to drive the services. They need to feel valued and know that they have a voice," she said.
The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE