Family of bipolar teen faces agonizing wait for help

Graeme Fry still lacks a dedicated psychiatrist to help him cope with a form of bipolar disorder, six years after his diagnosis.

After 6 years in the mental health system, 19-year-old still without dedicated psychiatrist

Graeme Fry and his mother, Andria Robin. (CBC News)

Graeme Fry was 13 when he felt his first crush of anxiety, obsessing over a school project that left him without sleep for days. 

"Back then I didn't even know what depression or what a mental illness was," said Fry. But he remembers being frightened by the way he was feeling.

Now 19, Fry is trying to manage his bipolar II disorder — sometimes called type two bipolar — a mental illness that causes sufferers to cycle between highs and lows without reaching the full-blown mania that comes with bipolar disorder.

It was like watching him crumble before our eyes.- Andria Robin, Graeme Fry's mother

The depression can bring thoughts of suicide, a symptom that has his mother on constant guard.

"[He experiences] really bad anxiety, pretty deep depression, like so deep that I would be waiting by the phone at work because I was worried for his safety," said Andria Robin.

"I was terrified. I have been terrified for a long time."

'I was going crazy'

It was January 2013 when a psychologist at Fry's high school first referred him to the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario. He was initially diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
Graeme Fry is now on new medication and finishing high school. (CBC News)

By April of that year Fry was still struggling, and was sent to the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre for assessment. 

"I was going crazy," Fry recalled. Despite taking his medication, Fry experienced an episode of dissociation, a detachment from the reality of one's surroundings.

"You almost feel like you're in a movie and you're seeing everything through a third person. You're not really there, and at that point I said, 'This has to stop, this is the end.'"

He also experienced hypomanic episodes, characterized by feelings of euphoria and irritability. The condition caused Fry to engage in risky behaviour such as punching a hole in a wall and crashing his car after running a red light.

"It was like watching him crumble before our eyes," said Robin.

Medication changed frequently

Fry was admitted for weeks at a time to CHEO and the Royal Ottawa, where his medication underwent frequent change. 

Finally, in March of this year, Fry saw a psychiatrist who diagnosed him with bipolar II, a disorder that's notoriously difficult to pinpoint because, while the depression is easy to identify, the hypomanic episodes can appear by contrast as normal behaviour.

Once again, Fry's medication was changed to treat the new diagnosis. 

But his family's relief was short-lived. The psychiatrist Fry had seen in March couldn't take him on as a patient. At the same time, Fry was told that at 19 he was too old to remain in the youth mental health program at the Royal Ottawa. 

Fry's mother has tried making appointments with nearly a dozen psychiatrists, but has been told none is accepting new patients. The best she has been able to do is to get her son on a seven-month wait list at the Queensway Carleton Hospital.   

"I'm scared out of my wits because we don't have a doctor to follow him," Robin said. 

Long wait list

According to the Royal Ottawa's website, a patient referred to the hospital for treatment in the mood and anxiety disorder program faces an average wait time of 228 days, or more than seven months. 

The hospital is also coping with a large increase in outpatient referrals — 2,017 between April 2016 and April 2017 — and doesn't have the resources to treat them all.

We do not have the resources required to provide the treatment that young people need in our community.- Dr. Gail Beck, Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre

Dr. Gail Beck, clinical director of the youth program at the Royal Ottawa, said the hospital has just lost two psychiatrists, exacerbating the problem.

"We do not have the resources required to provide the treatment that young people need in our community," said Beck.

Nor can the hospital's youth program help Fry any longer, Beck said. "Unfortunately we are obliged to close files when people turn 18 because there are so many more people coming through who are 16."

Beck said when patients become ineligible for the youth program, they may land on a priority list for treatment as an adult. For privacy reasons, she couldn't say whether Graeme Fry qualifies for that list. 

For now, Fry said his new medication is helping to ease his mood swings, but he'd like to start seeing one psychiatrist on a consistent basis. 

"If I have someone for a long time who I've developed that trust with, they know my story and where I come from, and they can get have a better understanding of what I need," said Fry.