'Every single story is heartbreaking': Island families share mental health struggles

A P.E.I. woman has started a Facebook group that shares personal stories from Island families dealing with mental-health issues.

P.E.I. woman compiling 100 stories in 100 days to raise awareness

A new Facebook page chronicles personal stories from Island families who feel their mental-health issues have not been met. (Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

Sarah Stewart-Clark said she always assumed that if a person on P.E.I. was suicidal, they would receive "immediate and appropriate care."

But when she got a message from friend who was searching for her son in the Hillsborough River, she realized that was not the case.

The friend's son was suicidal, Stewart-Clark said, so the mother took him to the emergency room at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. While waiting for a room in the mental-health ward, he got up and walked out.

'Could not imagine'

"When I read her message, I as a mother could not imagine being the situation where I've left my son, who's very ill, at the hospital and now I'm searching the river for him," Stewart-Clark said on CBC's Island Morning.

"Fortunately, he was not in the river. He was found alive."

Sarah Stewart-Clark says she would like the province to hire a child advocate and implement mobile mental-health crisis units. (CBC)

In an effort to raise awareness of gaps in the health-care system and spur government to take action, Stewart-Clark became one of the founders of the  Facebook page #HowManyWade.

The page contains personal stories shared by Island families who say their mental-health needs have not been met by the health-care system.

Many stories the same

Stewart-Clark plans to share 100 such stories over the next 100 days.

"Every single story is heartbreaking," she said.

And sadly, she added, many are the same.

Our population as a whole needs to hear these stories.- Sarah Stewart-Clark

"They're stories of young children, eight or nine, having severe mental illness and having the local emergency rooms telling the parents that it's a behavioural problem, that the child needs to go to bed earlier," she said.

Stewart-Clark said she doesn't dismiss the successes in the system, but the failures need to be addressed quickly.

She hears stories about children with mental-health issues who are "in limbo" and "parked in the ER" waiting for help.

Verna Ryan says she hears these stories too. Ryan is the chief administrative officer for Mental Health and Addictions Services at Health PEI.

More patients at ER

She acknowledges there are more people showing up at ERs with mental-health problems, and if they are suicidal, that is where they should be going, she said.

She said it's hard to diagnose children who are under 12 "because of developmental issues and whatnot," but said early psychosis in youths from 16 to 20 is a growing problem.

We could definitely use more resources.- Verna Ryan, Health PEI

"Reports from emerg that I hear is there is not a shift that goes by without a young person or older person in a drug- induced psychosis," she said.

Those high levels of psychosis and schizophrenia, an aging population beginning to experience dementia, and high alcohol and drug use all put a strain on mental-health resources, Ryan said.

Work left to be done

She said Health PEI has been trying hard to "maximize" its mental-health services, but admits there's a lot of work left to be done.

"We could definitely use more resources and we want to use them wisely," she said. "I want to do this in a planned process. We have a 10-year strategy that clearly outlines the gaps in the system ... we are asking for some patience as we're working on this, but there is hope."

Stewart-Clark said there is a sense of urgency when your loved one is suffering from mental illness.

'Tired of words'

"All of these families that are writing are tired of words and really want to see action."

For starters, Stewart-Clark said she'd like to a provincial child advocate and mobile mental-health crisis units

The province has said it is exploring those possibilities, but Stewart-Clark said she hopes the stories on Facebook will not only spur government to act, but also others who may not be aware of the struggles facing their fellow Islanders.

"Our population as a whole needs to hear these stories," she said.

"We really have to ask ourselves, 'do we want to live in a community in a province where this is how we treat people who are vulnerable and who really need medical assistance?' And if the answer is no, then we really have to stand up and say something about it and make change happen."

With files from CBC's Island Morning