Family crippled by depression

Bonnie Belec
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Former mental health council chairman says society not doing enough to help

Lisa Tucker sits in her impeccably decorated living room, cradling her infant daughter.
As she bounces the wiggling baby on her lap, another child can he heard snoring through a baby monitor.

Lisa Tucker’s husband is fighting depression. She says not being able to find the care and treatment he needs just makes matters worse. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

“That’s my son. He’s two,” she says, beaming with pride.

Tucker is on maternity leave from her teaching career. But at a time that should be among the happiest in her life, she’s overcome with the sadness that comes with having the person she loves sunk deep into depression.

As the baby begins squirming, Tucker fights back tears as she recounts her frustration at not being able to get the proper care and treatment for her husband.

They’ve been married 18 years and he has struggled with depression and anxiety for most of his life.

It came to a breaking point this time last year.

“It was very difficult. I was pregnant and he got sicker. Harris told me he couldn’t live like this anymore, but that he didn’t want to die,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes.

“It’s like constantly feeling impending doom,” she said of her 49-year-old husband’s mental health.

“It’s like a death, but the person is still breathing. Like you’re grieving the living and it is an illness people can’t see. And I think that’s what makes it so hard — there needs to be the acknowledgment this is real and it happens to normal, typical, working, average families,” she said.

The Tuckers live in St. John’s and their home is warm and inviting; filled with Christmas decorations, including two trees hung with richly coloured ornaments. The stairs are draped in lavish gold bows and a huge wreath is mounted over the fireplace.

Tucker says Harris is the artistic one in the family and he enjoys decorating for Christmas, but has toned it down this year because he isn’t feeling well.

Harris hasn’t been able to work lately due to his illness. She says a lack of treatment facilities in Newfoundland has her fearing he’ll have to leave the province to get help at the Homewood Health Centre in Guelph, Ont. — a 312-bed facility offering programs for a range of mental health issues.  

“It’s a place where he’d have freedom, but still get the care and treatment he needs,” she said.

“His doctor said some of his patients have gone there with favourable results, but for us it’s a last resort. We’re a young family and he shouldn’t have to go to Guelph,” she says, beginning to cry.

“We need a facility and I think we need a coming together of the resources we already have and bring them together.”

Difficult experience

In a letter to The Telegram, Tucker describes what she and Harris encountered as they sought help through the province’s mental health system.

She says it has been a constant, frustrating experience that led to him being admitted to a locked unit at the Health Sciences Centre without being assessed for three days. Through desperation, Harris tried electroconvulsive therapy, which his wife said didn’t work, and he is testing different medications to find something suitable.

An emailed statement from Eastern Health explained the use of locked units.

“All acute care psychiatric units are secure units in order to provide a safe and therapeutic environment to patients,” the statement said.

“Patients may be granted off-ward privileges upon assessment by the psychiatrist. These are general admission units, which means that patients with varying diagnoses are admitted there. The units are not specialized based on diagnosis categories such as mood disorders, psychosis, etc. Patients are provided with an orientation to the unit when they are admitted.”

Eastern Health says when patients are admitted outside normal working hours, there is a psychiatry resident, family practitioner, and psychiatrist on call who can deal with any issues that arise regarding a patient’s assessment and treatment. Psychologists generally work regular business hours and are not available on weekends.

Society’s response not enough

Vince Withers, who chaired the provincial mental health and addictions advisory council for 3 1/2 years before leaving the position in October, says mental health and addictions are crippling families.

“I wake up in the morning — and I’m in this everyday as former chair of the council and the chair of the Eating Disorder Foundation — and I wonder why the alarm bells are not going off,” he told The Telegram Thursday.

“We hear about this every day of our lives. If you stand back and look at the magnitude of it and the impact it is having on all of us, particularly families, these people are trying to cope with this 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with somebody who obviously needs specialized care and it is devastating. I think, as a society, we have failed to recognize and respond to the impacts these issues are having on families and on our social and economic environments,” he said.

The council was established in June 2010 to advise the health minister on key mental health matters. It  is made up of community groups, professionals and government officials.

Withers says he left the advisory council because he wanted to do more.  

“I want to make a different kind of contribution. I was working within the system, and when you work within the system you have to work within the system as best you can. But I think what we need to do here is try to provoke a debate in the community that is more honest, more realistic and more on the point than it is, and I need the freedom to do that,” he said.

He said the advisory council, the government and community groups are all making a contribution, but it’s not enough.

“The magnitude of the problem is not fully understood by the people who are responsible to do something about it,” he said.

“We’re putting an honest effort out there, but when you look at the problem, the access issues and the wait lists, you have to say, ‘Thank you very much for what you are doing, but we’re not doing near enough to respond,’” Withers said.

He said there are several initiatives underway — the construction of new facilities, web-based mental health services and a central booking system that will help direct people to where they need to be — but more needs to be done to build equity and accessibility within the system.

“Today, (people with mental illness) don’t have an equal opportunity to the system, and I think this is a really big issue,” Withers said.

“We have to get them off the bottom of the list and move them up, in terms of priority and fairness. The fairness issue is in the sense of the mind problem versus the body problem, and all of us in the community can do the best we can, but is it enough? I would say it is not nearly enough.”

Tucker says before Harris hit his low point she had a different feeling about mental health and thought she understood it.

“Now I can see what people face when they feel like they have no options,” she said.

“This is why you find people who take their lives. Before, I would probably say I can’t understand why they take their lives, but I can see now.

“He was at the end of his rope. He wouldn’t take his life, but he couldn’t live like he was living. Harris didn’t want to die. And for so many who don’t have family support, who don’t have an outlet, they take their lives and that’s the sad reality of it,” she said.

For now, Tucker said her husband is doing the best he can, seeing a psychiatrist regularly, trying different medications and seeing a nurse at LeMarchant House — a community-based mental health centre — every two weeks for a one-hour session.  

How to get help

Eastern Health urges anyone experiencing a mental health crisis to call the Mental Health Crisis Line (available 24/7) or request a visit from the mobile crisis team during the evenings, Wednesday through Saturday, by calling 709-737-4668 or toll free at 1-888-737-4668.

A person in St. John’s can also go to the emergency department at the Health Sciences Centre or the Waterford Hospital psychiatric assessment unit, where they will be triaged.  

If a person requires admission it can occur voluntary or involuntary.

A voluntary patient consents to be admitted while an involuntary patient requires treatment but is refusing it and meets the criteria for certification under the Mental Health Care and Treatment Act.

bbelec@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Health Sciences Centre, Homewood Health Centre, Eating Disorder Foundation LeMarchant House Waterford Hospital

Geographic location: Guelph, Eastern Health, Newfoundland

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Recent comments

  • Marie Norman
    December 14, 2013 - 17:10

    My husband, Fred, has been suffering from depression for a number of years, he is on medication but I think he needs something more, and I don't know what to do. I don't think there's enough help for people with mental illness in our province.

  • Nancy Knight
    December 12, 2013 - 00:51

    I am dealing with depression in my family as well. My husband has a bad case of depression and anxiety plus our 27 year old son has just moved back in with us temporarily with the same sickness. I would really like to see more support for families dealing with mental illness

  • Nancy Knight
    December 12, 2013 - 00:49

    I am dealing with depression in my family as well. My husband has a bad case of depression and anxiety plus our 27 year old son has just moved back in with us temporarily with the same sickness. I would really like to see more support for families dealing with mental illness

  • DW
    December 11, 2013 - 21:59

    can relate to this story so much!my brother is going through the same thing as MR. Harris and he has tried every medication, he doesnt sleep now and is so full of anxiety! Its a mortal sin to watch them like this and nobody can help! He is 40 and only married 4yrs next week, and they have a wonderful relationship but, he cant work now and they have a new house. It is so heartbreaking and he says he wont do anything to himself but. we worry so much.

  • dale
    December 11, 2013 - 21:46

    can relate to this story so much!

  • Corinne
    December 11, 2013 - 13:45

    I know exactly how the harris family is feeling. depression as and still is in my family. As for myself i haves more bad days then good ones, and every year it seems to be getting worse, no one can understand it unless they know someone thats going through it or as been through it themselves. I know not everyone is like this but theres people that dont understand it and when they hear your depressed and got no interest in anything they look at you like your an allien, and say things like you got to make yourself. But its not that easy, its like your interest, and the get up and go is paralized. But why some people still think like people with mental health issues and depression is crazy is because its diff not talked about enough, and esp talked about it like its just like any other diease, cause it is. And the feeling alone and no one cares can be extremley over whelming. There should be more help for people with this diease. And doctors needs to be more understanding and caring for any patience thats got this diease. I will tell you a experience i hade with a doctor in lab west, i went to him because i was really down , so down that it scared me, the hoplessness i felt, i wanted to be admitted and you know what he said to me, he said he couldnt admit me cause they didnt have enough beds , and that he couldnt give one to a person like me.

  • ian
    December 11, 2013 - 11:41

    cipralex worked for me, gave me bad stomach a lot of the time but it improved my mood dramatically. I was suicidal and am still depressed but I am working through it one day at a time. I can understand exactly what he is going through though. it isnt easy by any means and it isnt something you can see by looking at people, I have been through the worst that life can throw at a person. But there is light at the end of the long dark tunnel, its just seeing it is the hard part.

  • ian
    December 11, 2013 - 11:41

    cipralex worked for me, gave me bad stomach a lot of the time but it improved my mood dramatically. I was suicidal and am still depressed but I am working through it one day at a time. I can understand exactly what he is going through though. it isnt easy by any means and it isnt something you can see by looking at people, I have been through the worst that life can throw at a person. But there is light at the end of the long dark tunnel, its just seeing it is the hard part.

  • DW
    December 11, 2013 - 09:52

    I applaud the Tuckers and all families who share their stories. Talking openly about mental illness is crucial especially if we are to help others who have not reached out for help. The Canadian Mental Health Asscoiation has many resources and can provide support to those living with mental illess. When discussing people who have mental illnesses we must be careful not to label them buy their illness. For example referring to someone as a "schziophrenic" as opposed to "someome with schziophrenia " makes the peron feel as though that is who they are and distracts from who they really are; a person who has family, friends, dreams, fears and above all, purpose. I have worked with many people with Mental illness and all have said the same, do not label us by our illness, it is not who we are. Your brain is an organ and it gets sick like any other organ in your body yet we do not question it when it is your heart, lungs, liver etc... Depression is all consuming and debilitating and I worry for those who live with it but have no where to turn. The Tuckers and others who tell their stories are helping in more ways than they know. Like cancer or other serious illnesses, mental illnesf not only affects the peron who has it but everyone who loves them and lives with them. I pray that Ms. Tucker and her family find the help they need.

  • WINGOFADOVE
    December 09, 2013 - 22:31

    I know Harris very well and when is wife speaks out for him he is very sick man .Love you so much . So I hope well get all the help you can for yourself ,wife and your two kids

  • Just sayin
    December 09, 2013 - 08:26

    Seems there is little money and services for mental health, proper municipal sewer treatment etc and piles of money for Muskrat Falls for a little source of energy that there is little need for. There us a connection in terms of priortity. Mental Health here is still in the 19th century, anchored in a 19th century building at the Waterford. My sister spent a week there a few years ago, ....what a smell of urine, combined with the odour of cleaners. The old Miller Centre for Attzheimers 15 years ago was simiar. Inadequate ventaliation didn't help. And it appears attitude of many so called professionals are not exactly 21 st century.

  • Linda W.
    December 08, 2013 - 17:00

    My heart goes out to Lisa and Harris; The Homewood Centre in Guelph is not a LAST resort but the BEST resort to take now for Harris. St. John's system still treats mentally ill patients all the same - the ones with Depression, or PTSD are forced to be admitted with the acutely ill of the Waterford and no real serious treatment options; I have been through both and we surely could use a facility similar to Homewood, which categorizes people due to their type of illness and we are not all thrown together with schizophrenics or seriously ill mentally challenged people. You learn how to deal with life, that you can change how you react to problems and how you cope overall. Good luck Harris - your trip to Guelph will be well-worth it.

  • Bill D Macdonald
    December 07, 2013 - 15:41

    Hi, I read Belecs piece and thought that Harris might enjoy a movie on Netflix called "its kind of a funny story" About a young man with depression who gains hope and starts enjoying life again. I have had a mental illness for twenty years with bouts of depression mixed in. One in five has had a brush with mental illness. If you could pass the film title to the family. Its not much but it helps.

  • J
    December 07, 2013 - 12:42

    I certainly can relate. I am a 47 yr old male who is trying to deal with depression on my own. No help from my wife of 18 yrs who wants a divorce. We have 3 kids. I love and do what I can for them, but at the end of the day I am by myself. I went off Effexor about 6 weeks ago. I feel I'd be better off dead than to live like I do. No one cares. It's one big money making business , a billion dollar enterprise . To say in sickness and in health til death do us part. What a crock. If you cannot get the support from within your own four walls. What can the government do but to load you up on pills and send you back in! I feel depression every day. It has taken the best part of my life and flushed it down the drain. I can go on but who gives a shit really. I'm just another link in a long chain of losers.

    • j
      December 08, 2013 - 22:59

      As a 35 year old widow I can tell you that someone cares! My husband committed suicide a few months ago after a manic episode and my children and I miss him very much. I know it must be hard that your wife wants a divorce but no matter what, YOUR CHILDREN NEED YOU! As myself and my children prepare for our first Christmas without their dad there are a lot of sad days and nights. He will miss high school graduations, weddings, and grandchildren...and we will miss him too. Please continue to fight this horrible illness everyday, if not for yourself, for your children. They will always love you and if you aren't here they will wonder why you didn't love them enough to stay with them. I have heard my children say this and no matter how many times I tell them that their dad loved them more than they will ever know and that he was very sick, they still question his love for them. Don't leave your children with that burden, fight for them and tell them that you are struggling but that you will never give up because you love them too much to miss their lives. I care!

    • K
      December 09, 2013 - 22:37

      God cares deeply for those who are hurting like you are. I went through a very difficult time in my life where I thought I'd never feel happiness again and God brought me through it. There are always people placed in your life to care about you and in your life I believe they are your children. Like the lady mentioned to you in an earlier response, your children care and would never want to loose you. Believe that you are something and say it out loud everyday. Don't believe the lie that you are "just another link" because you're not. No one is any better than anyone else. We're all human and we're all flawed. One Hundred Huntley Street actually has a toll-free 24 hour prayer line you can call anytime you need someone to listen and pray for you. Take care and I pray that God puts more people in your life who will support you.

    • K
      December 09, 2013 - 22:39

      God cares deeply for those who are hurting like you are. I went through a very difficult time in my life where I thought I'd never feel happiness again and God brought me through it. There are always people placed in your life to care about you and in your life I believe they are your children. Like the lady mentioned to you in an earlier response, your children care and would never want to loose you. Believe that you are something and say it out loud everyday. Don't believe the lie that you are "just another link" because you're not. No one is any better than anyone else. We're all human and we're all flawed. One Hundred Huntley Street actually has a toll-free 24 hour prayer line you can call anytime you need someone to listen and pray for you. Take care and I pray that God puts more people in your life who will support you.

  • Ivan Tucker
    December 07, 2013 - 12:27

    Having had depression for all my life,starting from age 4-5 yrs. of age,up until about 5-6 yeasr ago,i lived a life of being suicidal every day,& it was that way for 57-59yrs. I'm 67 now without the mood swings,& everyday suicidal thoughts,but what I have lost though loss of my marriage,my life savings,continues to have negative effects on me.I take pride in being stable minded every day,but that is the only accomplishment I have after 10yrs.of constant therapy. I live day to day,with little or no money,i don't eat wisely,& I only use my car for groceries,& doctor appointments.I worked for fourty yrs.,but from age 53 till now I was unable to.Beside depression,i also had a cancer operation in 2000,for bowel cancer. I found some solace in the St. John's Health Science mental ward,more from the understanding of other patients with varying degrees of mental health disorders. We did have different classes of social togetherness,but very little on where,or how long you have felt suicidal,having mood swings,or other afflicting traumas. It wasn't till I came to Ontario,that I got away from that one silly question=on a scale of 1-10,how do you feel today,1 being the worst.Your dosage of pills were regulated or changed on your answer. My need was to know why I had such bad mood swings,which were for me never dealt with at Health Science.Most people,i'm sure need to know,to get closure. Luckly,i got that here in Ontario,& today I still have smaller issues,but am able to cope,every day,with no suicidal thoughts.Drugs are not always the qualifying answer,but the answer itself.

  • Tina Olivero
    December 07, 2013 - 11:27

    We have this same issue in our family. My older brother is very very ill, so much so that he doesn't feed himself and he doesn't take his meds regularly. The problem is, his illness supports him being headstrong and stubborn. He refuses help and refuses hospital even though is is seriously sick. It's really sad that a person in a state of depression with diagnosed bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia, can make unsound decisions unknowingly and the law prevents anyone from stepping in, even though it's in the best interest of the sick person. Watching my brother near death daily, and doing everything he can to avoid the Waterford is beyond sad. We have tried to help him, talk to him, guide him and coach him. Any way we try to help him he spends that money on cigs and other things that are harmful for him….rather than eating. Not at all sound decisions. Our family is deeply effected and often in conflict about what to do within each others roles as well - to support my brother. It's beyond sad and watching someone destroy themselves because of mental illness. Something is way off that we are tolerating this. There has to be a better way. There's a much better solution for this. What can we do?

  • Joe
    December 07, 2013 - 10:09

    Why doesn't he try going to the gym.

    • Just Sayin
      December 09, 2013 - 14:33

      Joe, physical activity is beneficial, but is not a cure for many. Many mental illnesses are triggered by high stress levels. Some , like PTSD there is often brain damage caused by extremely high stress hormones. To releive symptoms , fine tuning of medications is essential. And often patients are misdiagnosed and get the wrong medications which may make their condition worse. And then their is the stigma of having a mental illness, and insufficient support .

  • Linda W.
    December 07, 2013 - 05:33

    I truly feel for Harris and know where he is coming from as I have been battling this for over 20 years. The facilities here in St. John's are very poor indeed in treatment of general depression. People are immediately thrown into the Waterford with the very sick of society and not provided anywhere near the care that places like Homewood in Guelph provide - a way to understand, cope and deal with your illness. There is still a lot of misconception about mental illness here. They suggest you go to the Health Sciences Centre who has a perfect psychiatric department - then they immediately ship you over to the Waterford for assessment, which really gives you the feeling that your "depression" is on the scale of schizophrenia and other serious mental illnesses. You are amongst some of the "sickest" of our society. Health Sciences should do their own assessments like in the past. There is hope Tucker - that Harris will get the help he needs in Guelph. Just go with a committed attitude that you want to understand and deal with this and you amongst people who have pretty much what you have. I have been there twice and found it to be extremely life-changing. The staff are amazing and the care is the best. We definitely need a facility like this in St. John's.

    • DJ
      December 09, 2013 - 06:33

      Check out Betterdaysnl.org we are supporters and consumers who share our methods of dealing with bipolar, anxiety, depression etc. through peer support.