Not every mental illness is the same, and the sooner professionals in this province stop treating them like they are, the faster people will get better, says a woman who has been living with depression for more than 20 years.
Linda Walker moved to a small town just outside Carbonear from Montreal during the early 1990s. She said it was a challenging time in her life, and living in a small community of about 450 people — where stigma was rampant and mental illness was shunned — didn’t help.
Overcome with feelings of hopelessness and despair, she reached out to the only hand visible in rural Newfoundland at the time — the hospital.
“It was either the local hospital here, or the Health Sciences Centre, St. Clare’s and, God forbid, the Waterford on one occasion,” Walker said of where she sought help over the years.
“These places only offer a safe place to get it together for a while, adjust your medication, and then they send you home to deal with coping on your own. There is no real teaching of coping mechanisms, understanding your illness,” she said.
The 64-year-old said she was frustrated over the years as she searched for a professional to teach her how to deal with it as well as find the right mixture of medication to treat her illness.
Walker suggested the way the system works in this province needs to change first by looking at the illnesses and addressing them individually instead of lumping them all together on one unit.
“The profession treats mentally ill patients all the same — the ones with depression, or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) are forced to be admitted with the acutely ill, the sickest of patients, to the Waterford (Hospital) with no real serious treatment options,” she said.
Walker described an admission to the Waterford as more of a nightmare than something that makes a patient feel safe.
“I was put in a room, and the next thing I know, there’s furniture flying around the room. It was like two different worlds. I asked a doctor if he would put his wife in the Waterford if she was depressed, and he answered, ‘No,’ of course,” Walker recalled.
After several years of ups and downs, Walker said she finally found a couple of people who would forever change her life — one was a psychologist, and the other was a doctor who suggested she could go to Homewood Health Centre in Guelph.
“The psychologist who I was fortunate to link up with over those years was my saving grace as he helped me understand that this is an illness I did not ask for or want. The absolute despair takes a real burden on your family as you come to believe you are only making it more difficult for them and they would be better off without you,” Walker told The Telegram Wednesday.
She said after being told about Homewood — a 312-bed facility offering a range of programs for mental health and addictions in Guelph, Ont. — she looked into it.
Her first visit was in August 2010 for eight weeks, and she went again the following October for eight more.
“They taught me so many useful coping techniques — like grounding techniques, assertiveness, anger management skills, communication and relationship skills, co-dependency issues — as well as giving me time for learning relaxation skills like horticulture, crafts and learning how to manage whatever issue you were there for. It was structured, but you left with a sense that you were more equipped to deal with issues in your own life,” she said.
“The program is very effective and brought me through the worst times of my life. I learned to face my illness head on and the support system there is the best by far,” said Walker.
Homewood’s chief of staff, Dr. Brian Furlong — who is originally from Newfoundland — describes the facility as the equivalent of the Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto for mental health and addictions across the country.
The private centre — publicly funded by the province of Ontario — offers highly specialized programs attended by people from British Columbia to Newfoundland.
Furlong said there has been a lot of time and energy and expertise put into developing the programs and Homewood has been on the leading edge for many years.
He said what makes if difficult for some provinces to be able to offer the same specialized programs is the population base. He said in order to develop the expertise and the specialization there has to be a certain volume of patients and population base, which is what Homewood has been able to accomplish with its national referral program
“Having specialized programs allows one to develop the expertise to commit to that program, and you have the volume of patients coming through on a yearly basis that allows you to build and maintain that expertise,” said Furlong.
“In a general hospital setting you have everything from the cradle to the grave, diagnostically and age wise. What we’ve done, we’re an adult facility, large enough on an inpatient basis to be able to create those specialized programs, build the expertise into them and maintain them and the patient flow,” he said.
But in a 20-bed general psychiatric unit with patients who have eating disorders, depression, schizophrenia and addictions, it’s hard to create eight or 10 specialized programs.
“You can’t build a program with one patient. What probably makes incredible sense is to recognize that when you got a small population base, you can’t be everything to everyone, but there’s a number of general services that one aims to provide the highest level of competence and expertise, too, and then to recognize where you need additional help,” said Furlong from his office in Guelph.
“We do that in children’s cases. We do it in cardiology, and we need to accept that sometimes we have to do it in psychiatry,” he said.
According to an emailed statement from Eastern Health, once a person is admitted for psychiatric services, either at the Waterford or the Health Sciences, they are admitted on general 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. The adult acute care psychiatry units have private (single beds) and ward rooms (four beds). Private rooms are assigned based on the clinical needs of the patient. Patients are provided with an orientation to the unit when they are admitted,” reads the statement.
Eastern Health provides hospital and community based services for a range of mental health and addictions issues, and is working on several new initiatives which range from promotion and public awareness campaigns to evaluating services and reviewing policies.
With Homewood behind her, Walker said these past couple of years have been more bearable than the last 20, but she still lives one day at a time.