Family crippled by depression

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

Bonnie Belec bbelec@thetelegram.com
Published on December 7, 2013
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

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.

“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