Mother of 8-year-old with mental illness speaking out about lack of care

Some parents across P.E.I. say they can't get the psychiatric help their children need — even in emergencies. And they're making what's traditionally been a very private fight, public.

Frustrated parents push for more mental health resources as emergency rooms swell with patients

The mother of an eight-year-old P.E.I. boy says after several trips to the ER, she had to go to Halifax to get a diagnosis for her son. (Mary-Catherine McIntosh/CBC)

There are no toys piled in the corner of this eight-year-old boy's bedroom. No books scattered on a shelf, no pet hamster in a cage.

Nothing, his mother says, except a bed and a dresser. Better safe than sorry.

"There's been instances where he tries to even harm himself with a book,"  she told Mary-Catherine McIntosh on CBC's The Current.

The freckled-faced boy with grass-stained knees has been in and out of hospital for years with severe mental health problems.

Psychiatric patients are getting stuck in the emergency room of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for days, even weeks. (Mary-Catherine McIntosh/CBC)

His mother, whom CBC is not naming to protect the identity of the child, is one of a growing number of parents on the Island who are speaking out about the lack of treatment for their children in the P.E.I. health-care system.

ER not always equipped

She said when her son gets violent and starts throwing things, she takes him to the ER. But the hospital is not always equipped to deal with the situation.

There's been times when I felt like I could not keep going.- Mother of boy struggling with mental illness

"He's only eight and the pediatric unit with that type of behaviour is not appropriate," she said. "Anytime he's been there they had to do up a room for him. They have to put everything sharp away. They have to revamp the pediatric unit and he's always on constant care. Sometimes he's not admitted because they didn't have constant care available."

She started noticing problems when he was a toddler in daycare. He'd throw fits when she'd try to leave, and the problems progressed from there.

Years without diagnosis

For years, the boy didn't even get a diagnosis. The mother said she was told again and again it was a behavioural issue, that she should put him to bed earlier and change his diet.

It wasn't until one day last fall, fed up after waiting six days at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown without seeing a child psychiatrist, that she packed up and drove four hours to the IWK children's hospital in Halifax, where she said she finally got a proper long assessment and that diagnosis.

Her son, doctors told her, has an anxiety disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and a learning disability.

Since Christmas, four psychiatrists — one third the total on P.E.I. — have resigned.

There is only one child psychiatrist currently working on P.E.I and a "tele-psychiatrist" available from Ontario.

Parents on P.E.I. have offered support to families with sick children, many of them strangers, by buying groceries, making meals — even house cleaning. (Mary-Catherine McIntosh/CBC)

Parents are so frustrated with the lack of mental health resources they've launched a campaign addressed at Premier Wade MacLauchlan called #HowManyWade.

T-shirts and bumper stickers

It started on social media, with dozens of sad stories about the lack of care. There are now T-shirts and bumper stickers with the #HowManyWade slogan.

"We are looking for leadership,"  said Sarah Stewart Clark, who organized the campaign.

"We are asking the question of the premier, 'How many people does the system have to fail how many do we have to lose to suicide before we really give this issue the attention that it deserves."

Dr. Heather Keizer, P.E.I.'s chief of psychiatry, and Health Minister Robert Henderson say the province is working to address the mental health needs of Islanders. (Mary-Catherine McIntosh/CBC)

Dr. Heather Keizer, the chief psychiatrist for the province, said it used to be that she'd see about four or five patients in the ER in a night shift. Now it can be more like 20.

Those who are admitted can be stuck in the ER days or even weeks. According to the Health Department, last year the longest a person was in the ER waiting for a psychiatric bed was 61 days.

Doctors and nurses who spoke with CBC say it may not be that more people are getting sick, but that people are more comfortable seeking help for mental health issues.

The province has acknowledged "there's a growing trend of mental health issues" on P.E.I. It has stepped up psychiatrist recruitment efforts, and is planning to replace the Hillsborough Hospital with a central mental health and addiction facility.

Supporting each other

In the meantime, many parents on P.E.I. have offered support to families with sick children through the Facebook group Island Mothers Helping Mothers. Some are even strangers, who buy groceries, make meals and clean houses.

But for people like the mother of the eight-year-old boy, help from the government can't come soon enough.

"There's been times when I felt like I could not keep going," she said.

"Then I get an ounce of fight in me and I keep going and I keep going and I keep going and I think and pray and hope that someday all my advocating and fighting for answers is going to be worth it."

With files from Mary-Catherine McIntosh and The Current