Parents of teen with mental illnesses say 'broken' N.L. health system has failed them

The parents of a teenager experiencing suicidal ideation say they aren't able to get her the help she needs.

Daughter needs to be admitted to residential treatment facility, say parents

Teenager sitting on stairs with head in hands, backpack on ground next to her.
About 70 per cent of mental illnesses start during childhood and adolescence, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada. (Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock)

WARNING: This story contains details of suicidal ideation.

On a windy day in October, a mother and father sat on a park bench on Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula, frustrated and exhausted.

At only 13, their daughter is dealing with several mental illnesses. But instead of being admitted to a residential treatment facility, the girl is being failed, her parents say.

"This system is broken. It is utterly broken," the mother said.

CBC News has agreed not to identify the family to protect the underage girl.

She has been diagnosed with DMDD, short for disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, as well as ADHD, an anxiety disorder and depression, and has been on medication for the past three years.

Symptoms of DMDD are severe temper outbursts several times a week and irritability or anger for most of the day, nearly every day, which makes daily activities difficult.

"This is not a child who's in a random state of depression. This is a child who has now resorted to thoughts of suicide on a daily basis," said the mother.

Yet the family says the yearlong fight to get her help has been unsuccessful.

Running out of options

The fight began when the family moved to Newfoundland and Labrador in April 2020.

Three months earlier, they had put their daughter on the wait list for a psychiatrist at the Janeway children's hospital in St. John's. A full year later, she finally got one.

"The only reason she got in to a psychiatrist was the amount of times that we brought her to the Janeway. They finally gave in," said the mother.

But even a therapist at the Janeway and a psychiatrist haven't helped. Suicidal ideation is a regular occurrence in the family home. Not knowing what to do, the parents call the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary's mental health crisis team on a weekly basis.

All this, the mother says, could be avoided if her daughter had a spot at a residential treatment facility. But the family says they've experienced one denial after another.

"We were made to believe that there is no room in the Janeway to help," said the mother.

They felt that way until July, when their daughter was admitted.

But after only one week, they received a phone call — their daughter was released again.

"We tried to dispute picking her up," said the mother. "We were told that if we did not come and pick her up, child welfare would be involved."

They say they aren't sure why the teenager was sent home. "There was no followup after her being released. We have been left in complete limbo for everything," the mother said.

Once again, hospital visits and police calls became the only resources for the family.

"They talk to her and say, 'Well, she has no issues. She's not a threat, she's not a threat to herself,' so they send her home," said the father. "But here she is, saying that she wants to kill herself."

Seeking help

In their desperation, the parents contacted Health Minister John Haggie and various other politicians. 

Haggie declined an interview. In a statement to CBC News, the Department of Health and Community Services said, "This is a distressing situation and [the department] fully [understands] the upset experienced by the family."

Paul Dinn, who represents the district of Topsail-Paradise in the House of Assembly and is the Progressive Conservative health critic, was one of the few who tried to help, the parents say.

Dinn says stories like this frustrate him.

"To be honest with you, I get lots of stories like that," said Dinn. "My heart goes out to them. I'll do what I can, but it comes to a point where someone else has to step up and make some real change."

The parents of a 13-year-old girl say their daughter isn't receiving appropriate care. She sees a psychiatrist at the Janeway children's hospital in St. John's, but her parents say she needs more intensive treatment. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

The provincial government, said Dinn, needs to address mental health-care needs, especially among children and teenagers.

"There's something like 1.2 million children in Canada who are dealing with mental health issues, and only somewhere around 20 per cent actually get the help that they need," said Dinn.

Not willing to give up, the parents applied to the Tuckamore Centre in Paradise. The Eastern Health facility offers round-the-clock care to up to 12 teenagers between the ages of 12 and 18.

After a lengthy application process and another 10 weeks' wait time for the facility board's decision, the family was also denied access. A copy of the letter outlining the decision was obtained by the parents.

The letter says the teenager "is not demonstrating" mental health issues or "high-risk behaviours" such as self-harm or a "dangerous lifestyle."

The mother told CBC News she doesn't understand how grabbing knives and vocalizing thoughts of suicide isn't dangerous behaviour, and says she believes intervention should happen before her child starts self-harming.

'Right kind of crazy'

Dinn calls the response "ridiculous," but suspects staff were bound by limited space and resources.

"In a lot of respects the parent who's with that child on a daily basis probably knows what's going on more than any assessment," said Dinn, suggesting that for some facilities, the attitude seems to be "sorry, but you're not 'crazy' enough to be in here."

In using the term "crazy," Dinn is referring to Embracing Experiences, a report released by the Canadian Mental Health Association in May describing people's experience with mental health care in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Being "too crazy" or "not crazy enough" to receive care was one of the concerns voiced in the report.

"One quote was, 'I have to have the right kind of crazy.' That's sad," said Dinn. "When you hear comments like that, it's baffling."

Paul Dinn, the MHA for Topsail-Paradise, says he hears from desperate parents frequently. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC)

Eastern Health, which oversees both the Janeway hospital and the Tuckamore Centre, wouldn't do an interview with CBC. In a statement, the health authority said it can't publicly discuss a patient's case but noted admissions are made based on psychiatric assessments.

It went on to say that residential treatment isn't suited for every mental illness, since "youth must be medically and psychiatrically stable and able to cognitively handle the demands of the treatment program for maximum benefit."

In its statement to CBC, the Department of Health and Community Services said people are provided with the care suited for their individual needs and that other mental health services are available to the public, such as Doorways and Bridge the gApp, a mobile app focused on mental health.

But better long-term care needs to be available, says Dinn.

"It's not fixed with a pill, it's not fixed with a website, it's not fixed with a call-in line."

The girl's mother agrees that these are systemic issues the government should address.

"Step up and help people. I guarantee we're not the only people out here that are crying for help," said the mother.

"This is unacceptable. I will fight for her until I am dead. I will fight."

If you or someone you know needs mental health support, call the 24-hour Mental Health Crisis Line at 1-888-737-4668 or the 24-hour Kid's Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Henrike Wilhelm


Henrike Wilhelm is a journalist working with CBC's bureau in St. John's.

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