Ross River, Yukon, residents desperate for mental health services

Families of people with illnesses including schizophrenia, psychosis, bipolar disorder and anxiety say visits from a mental health worker twice a month aren't nearly enough and they're calling on the government for help.

'They have to pretty well almost hurt somebody or themselves before they get the help they need'

People in Ross River say it falls to families to take care of people with mental illness, because government mental health services in the community are so poor. (Nancy Thomson/CBC)

Shane Glada had been missing for about four days before his body was discovered in a little gully just metres from some houses in Ross River, Yukon, last October.

The cause of death has not yet been determined. But people in Ross River say Glada, 22, needed help, desperately, to deal with psychosis.

Glada's uncle Gord Peter said Shane's behaviour and personality changed abruptly when he was about 15.

"At the beginning I took him down to the health centre and he was taking medication," Peter said. But Glada didn't like the side effects and stopped taking it.

It's not clear whether Glada ever received an actual diagnosis. He had a support worker for some time, a local person who made sure he took his medication and oversaw his welfare. But that assistance didn't last.

Neighbours looked out for him

According to a source who has intimate knowledge of the community's mental health needs, Glada's condition was so severe that "he should have been committed" into the secure medical unit at Whitehorse General Hospital.

That never happened. Instead, Glada lived with another elderly uncle, who's hard of hearing and doesn't understand a lot of English. People in the community say they generally kept an eye out for Glada.

Because of his psychosis, Glada frequently didn't eat. Resident Lloyd Caesar said he would give Glada nutrition shakes and moose broth in an attempt to get some food into him. "Everyone acknowledged that he was very undernourished," the source said. 

Peter agrees that Glada "fell through the cracks" and said he too tried to keep an eye on his nephew.

"Just before his death I was talking with the [mental health] person that visits from Dawson," Peter said. "I told her to go check on Shane, and see if you can help him out in any way." That was right around the time that Glada went missing.

'People depend on their family'

Peter's own 22-year-old son has psychosis and he spends much time taking care of him. Peter said in Ross River, family is pretty much the only option for care for people with mental illnesses.

Shane Glada's uncle Gord Peter says he tried to look out for his nephew. (Nancy Thomson/CBC)
"I don't know what kind of services they have for mental health in Whitehorse, but here, people depend on their family members," he said.

Nora Ladue agrees. Her daughter is in her early 30s and has psychosis, with periodic 'breaks'. Ladue says seeing a mental health worker twice a month isn't nearly enough care.

"People don't get sick once every two weeks," she said. "It would be really, really good if we could have our own person here." Ladue said it's a challenge to get help for her daughter without adequate mental health care in the community. 

"They have to pretty well almost hurt somebody or themselves before they get the help they need."

'The largest gap in service'

It's no secret that psychiatric care and mental health services are below par in the territory.

"Psychiatry and care of the mentally ill patient is probably the largest gap in service in the Yukon," wrote Wayne MacNicol, chief of medical staff at the Yukon Hospital Corporation, in his 2015 annual report. 

MacNicol cited the lack of a proper psychiatric hospital unit, poor coordination of services in the communities, lack of proper triaging and a lack of  follow-up on patients treated in the secure unit. 

The CEO of the Yukon Hospital Corporation, Jason Bilsky, told the Yukon legislature last fall that the "secure medical unit [at Whitehorse General] is only intended to be a safe environment for acute mental health patients" who are in crisis.

There, they're stabilized, assessed and offered basic care. "It's definitely not a psychiatric program, which does not exist in the territory," Bilsky told MLAs.

All of this may come as news to health minister Mike Nixon. Last November, he told the legislature "Ross River is a great example of collaboration between health, mental health and social services and First Nation staff to put client and patient first and wrap services together for greater access and improved outcomes."

Nora Ladue said Nixon's sunny assessment is wrong. "We're remote, We don't even have a bus here. We don't have taxi, we don't have a plane, unless it's a medevac," she said.

"It's really, really hard when you need help, it's not there. And it's very frustrating. So I don't know where the health minister is getting all his information, I don't see him out here."

The Yukon Department of Health and Social Services did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

About the Author

Nancy Thomson

Raised in Ross River, Yukon, Nancy Thomson is a graduate of Ryerson University's journalism program. Her first job with CBC Yukon was in 1980, when she spun vinyl on Saturday afternoons. She rejoined CBC Yukon in 1993, and focuses on First Nations issues and politics. You can reach her at