What Tessa remembers most about her many hospital stays was the chaos.
From the time she was admitted, often coming in through the emergency department, she said her days and nights were filled with the unsettling sounds of staff shuffling about. Plus, she had to contend with the bright lights and lack of privacy.
The 45-year-old Hamilton woman has been hospitalized many times since her late twenties, when she was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (also known as multiple personality disorder).
"It was always absolute turmoil," said Tessa, who asked her real name not be used. "I remember admission would take hours and hours, then once I got a bed, it would take me so much longer to stabilize."
Five years ago, her doctor directed her to the Barrett Centre for Crisis Support, a residential support program for people with mental health problems and the first of its kind in the city. It operates out of a stately old home on Emerald Street South and, as testimony to the void it's filled in the city's mental health care spectrum, client numbers have grown from 258 in the first year to 2,557 last year.
More than 3,000 clients expected in 2012
Director Peter Kibor expects more than 3,000 clients this year. The centre also offers telephone support as well as in-office counseling. Their clients are people who are facing a mental health crisis as well as inmates or hospital patients with mental health problems who need help transitioning into the community.
Their main problem is lack of beds. The 10 beds (split evenly between men and women, who are on different floors) are usually full. At least once a month, they have to send someone to a similar centre in Oakville or turn them away because there were no beds.
"There have been times when we knew someone needed a bed and it was clear we should have brought them in but nothing was available," said Kibor.
Tessa requires intensive counseling and medication to keep her on course. Without both, she can become suicidal. She said she's had fewer admissions to the centre than she would have to the hospital. Her stays have been much shorter mainly because of the type of treatment she receives.
Ask her how it differs from what she received in the hospital and she laughs.
"It's nothing like it. Not even close," she said. "They call you a guest and you eat as a family and there's staff to talk to 24 hours a day. The most important thing is I don't feel like they judge me. I can relax and eat and sleep and they take care of you."
'When I'm lonely…and I know I'm going into crisis, I know I can call them'
Tessa's care also includes 2 a.m. phone calls when she needs it.
"When I'm lonely and alone and I know I'm going into crisis I know I can call them. Just knowing there's a place that's got my back, where I can go when I'm in crisis, there's something so comforting about that."
Staff at the centre have experience in health, mental health, addictions, recovery and crisis counseling and partner with other programs in the community, Kibor said. That includes COAST (Crisis Outreach and Support Team) and Psychiatric Emergency Services at St. Joseph's Hospital for additional support and services.
The centre is funded by the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care and has private and semi-private bedrooms and guests that typically stay three to five days. Part of their job in helping people get back into the community involves linking them with housing, dealing with landlords and making sure they have good medical support.
"We want to try and at least give them a fighting chance," said Kibor.
Kibor recalls a young woman who was schizophrenic who had been hospitalized several times, often for up to six weeks, before coming to the Barrett Centre.
"We built a relationship with her, so when she called and had been off her meds, we knew what to do, what she needed. We'd built such a good rapport with her that over the next year she had no admissions. Now we rarely hear from her," said Kibor.