Mom urges more mental health care as fentanyl threatens family again

A Calgary mom lost her first son to a fentanyl overdose, and now fears her other son is not getting the care he needs.

'I'm terrified that I'm going to end up saying goodbye to another child,' says Calgary mother

Dana Parkes lost her son Tristan more than two years ago to a drug overdose. Now she worries about the future of her other son. 3:17

Dana Parkes runs her fingers across old photographs of her son Tristan as if she's stroking his cheek.

He's been dead for two years, but the loss is still raw.

The trauma left behind is inescapable.

Tristan was 19 when his body was discovered in the janitor's closet of an underground parkade in Calgary after he overdosed on fentanyl.

His younger brother, who is also addicted to the toxic street drug, continued to use it, even after Tristan's death.

"It's absolutely heartbreaking and defeating, where I just want to lie in bed and pull the covers and wake up when it's over," Parkes says. "But I don't know when it will be over."

Tristan Parkes died at the age of 19 from a fentanyl overdose. His body was found in a janitor's closet of an underground parkade in Calgary. (CBC)

Parkes believes her youngest son's drug use was directly tied to his recurring bouts of sadness, which were made worse by his older brother's death.

He first tried to harm himself when he was 12, and he's been in and out of hospitals many times since.

The mom says her son, now 18, is taking methadone for his opioid addiction, but she has struggled for years to get him into mental health treatment.

Waits are long, and he's been resistant to care in the past. After emergency room visits, he's often released the following day, despite his mother's pleas for longer-term care.

While he secured a spot at an addictions and mental health program for youth at Foothills hospital, where there was a six-week wait, Parkes is gripped by fear that her family could suffer another loss.

"Maybe one day I'll be able to think positive about the future, but as of right now, I don't," says the mom, who also has a 14-year-old daughter.

"I'm terrified that I'm going to end up saying goodbye to another child."

The son declined to be interviewed for this story.

The Parkes family, who live in suburban Calgary, have been caught in the middle of a drug scourge that has rocked Alberta.

Alberta fentanyl crisis

Ever since fentanyl exploded into the province's illicit drug trade and triggered an escalating death toll, health officials have made some gains, such as opening treatment spaces and widely distributing the overdose antidote naloxone.

But in their three-year response to the drug crisis, health officials have not made any significant improvements to Alberta's mental health system, says Dr. Michael Trew, the province's former chief addiction and mental health officer.

"It continues to have gaps and challenges for people who are really looking for good quality care in mental health and addictions," says Trew, a practising psychiatrist. 

The gaps remain, despite an independent review of Alberta's mental health system, commissioned by the Notley government in 2015. The review panel made dozens of recommendations, including more funding and quicker treatment for those at risk of suicide.

A follow-up report, published last spring, provided a roadmap to implement many of the recommendations, including a call to increase the availability of counselling for those with addictions and mental health issues.

Trew says there have been some improvements as a result of the review, but funding remains an issue.

"If you don't put the money in for the resources in the long run, then you end up with long wait times and gaps in the system," Trew says.

'Sometimes things fall through cracks'

Nicholas Mitchell, the provincial medical director for addictions and mental health at Alberta Health Services, says the health authority is working to cut wait times and improve the system, but adds emergency departments have seen an influx of youth with mental health and addictions problems.

He says the NDP government has boosted funding for services but "it's hard to say" whether the extra money has been enough to meet rising demand.

Mitchell says work is also underway to better integrate mental health and addictions services, and to help families more easily navigate the system so they can get the care they need as quickly as possible.

"It's a complex system, and sometimes things fall through the cracks," he says.

Long waits for care is a pressing problem for families. Wait times for AHS' mental health and addictions program for youth in Calgary, which Parkes's son will join this month, range from three weeks to a month.

Dana Parkes lost her son Tristan to a drug overdose when he was 19. She is worried her younger son will meet the same fate if he can't get the help he needs. (CBC)

Parkes says her son was in a mental health program about four years ago but dropped out, and was admitted to hospital earlier this year — twice in one weekend — after threatening to harm himself. Then in November, police arrived at the Parkes home after they were told the teenager again talked about hurting himself. He had texted a friend, who alerted the authorities.

Parkes says her son was released from hospital later that night, despite her fears for her boy's life.

For now, the family is waiting for the teen's first appointment with a counsellor with the addictions and mental health program, and hoping that this time will be different.

"I just want him to have a happy life," his mom says.

About the Author

Reid Southwick

Reporter

Reid Southwick spent 10 years in newspapers reporting in New Brunswick and Alberta before joining CBC in late 2017. In Calgary, he has covered business news, crime and Alberta's fentanyl crisis. Get in touch with Reid by email at reid.southwick@cbc.ca or on Twitter @ReidSouthwick.