PEI·CBC Investigates

P.E.I. man resorts to drastic measures to get mental health help

A P.E.I. man struggling with his mental health decided the only way he could get admitted to hospital was to overdose.

'I was on my knees, basically ... Somebody please help me.’

'I was thinking I needed help and that was a cry for it,' said Mark. (Kirk Pennell/CBC News)

Warning: This story deals with suicide.

Mark recalls lying on his bed, drifting into unconsciousness.

His radio is cranked. His dog is barking furiously. 

Police are breaking down his door with a battering ram. 

Mark says he overdosed on prescription drugs so that he would be admitted to hospital for psychiatric care. He was desperate to get help.

"It's what I [had] to do. At least that's what I felt like … That's messed up," he told CBC News. "It shouldn't have come to this. You shouldn't have to go through that to get help." 

We're not using Mark's real name because he believes being identified would jeopardize his job and harm his family. Although this is a personal account, CBC News has confirmed the main elements of his story.

'Deeper and deeper into this dark hole' 

Mark has been struggling with his mental health for years, since the death of a close family member. He was on anti-anxiety medication but had not been taking it regularly.

A week before he deliberately overdosed and police broke down his door, Mark was in a bad place mentally. He was out driving down some back roads. "I just kept getting deeper and deeper into this dark hole in my head. I didn't want to be around … and I was suicidal," he said.

He'd texted goodbye messages to some family and close friends, telling one where they'd find his body.

"I was thinking I needed help and that was a cry for it."

'I can get up in the mornings now. I can go to work now. I can enjoy the outside now,' said Mark, after struggling for years with his mental health. (Sally Pitt/CBC News)

Mark drove to the Hillsborough Bridge around 11 at night, shut off his lights, locked his doors and parked, running through his options in his mind.

"There were parts of me that wanted the help at that time, but it was almost like there was a bigger part of me that just didn't want to bother with it," he said. "It's just easier just to give up, whether it be to run away or disappear or take my own life."

When police arrived, Mark had a pellet gun on the seat beside him, partially covered with a sweater.

"I could grab the gun because from 30 feet away in the dark, they're not going to know the difference [between a pellet gun and a rifle]. It more or less would have been suicide by cop."

Two police officers Mark knew came to the scene and he eventually got out of his car and talked to them for about 45 minutes. When the officers told him he needed to go to the hospital, he agreed. He said he knew he needed professional help and was eager to take the next step.

I was thinking like, what the hell ... How could you not keep somebody in that kind of mental state?- Mark

Mark was kept overnight at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and the next morning was transferred to the Hillsborough Psychiatric Hospital. He thought he'd be admitted for a few days.

Instead, he said he talked to several medical staff, and then to a psychiatrist via Zoom, whom he said he could barely make out due to a glitchy signal. The psychiatrist sent him home with a prescription, he said.

"I was thinking, like, 'What the hell?'

"How could you not keep somebody in that kind of mental state?" said Mark. "I didn't know what to think. I really didn't know what to say … I was blown away."

'It was so fogged up from everything before. I didn't know if I was coming or going or what I wanted,' said Mark. (Sally Pitt/CBC News)

He went home but he didn't feel any better. In fact, he said, his mental state deteriorated.

I was on my knees basically ... Somebody please help me.- Mark

"It literally made me feel like nobody cared," said Mark.

"I finally asked for help, like that was my bottom, that was my low. I was on my knees, basically … 'Somebody please help me.' That was the spot you're supposed to go for it, and I didn't get any type of help."

"I just wanted him to get help," Mark's mother told CBC News. "I went over there to stay with him, but I couldn't give him the help he needed."

His girlfriend at the time knew he was distressed but didn't know how to help either. 

Islanders have been told help is available for those who need it, she said, but it wasn't there for Mark.

'I wasn't going to make it through 24 hours'

A week later Mark decided to try again to get professional help.

"I knew when I woke up that morning I wasn't going to make it through 24 hours," he said.

He said his family and friends encouraged him to admit himself to hospital and he agreed.

"I was great. I was almost on Cloud 9 of the mental health cloud. I was really excited for it. Like OK, let's do this."

He packed a bag and told his family he'd be gone for a few days.

Mark's friend told CBC News that he called Prince County Hospital about getting Mark admitted; Mark had been admitted there before and said his time there was helpful.

But his friend said the hospital told him they admit only emergency cases, such as those brought in police.

Once he was admitted to hospital Mark says he felt like the weight started to slide off his shoulders. (Kirk Pennell/CBC News)

Mark was shocked. "I had promised everybody I was going to be OK."

That's when he decided to overdose — so that he would be admitted. He started popping his anxiety medication and the pills he'd been prescribed a week earlier.

He texted goodbye messages to his family and friends, again.

He phoned the RCMP officer he'd talked to a week earlier at the Hillsborough Bridge and told him he had taken "a bunch of pills and was going to lie down."

He said the officer told him he'd have to report it, and police would be responding.

Mark doesn't know how many pills he took.

"I'm thinking: 'F**k this. I know I need help. I'll get [it] in there,'" said Mark.

'This is what I have to do'

When his girlfriend showed up, she found the door locked and loud music blaring from inside.

She pounded on the door.

"He came to the door, put his hand up on the glass and said: 'I'm sorry, this is what I have to do,'" she said.

Mark crawled into bed, and started to drift to sleep. His dog lay by his side, nudging him. 

The next thing he remembers hearing is the loud bang as police used a battering ram to break down his locked door.

Police are called on to respond to suicide attempts and those in crisis. They had to break down Mark's locked door to get inside to help him. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

There were about six officers. Mark's large dog was barking at them, and wouldn't leave his side.

His girlfriend got the dog and police rushed to Mark's bed. He appeared to be unconscious but officers were able to revive him slightly until paramedics arrived.

He was hooked up to an IV, and taken away on a stretcher to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital emergency department. 

He said the doctor later told him he almost died.

'It's like flicking a light switch ... day and night'

The next morning, Mark was again transferred to Hillsborough Hospital. Once he was admitted things began to improve, he said.

"It felt like a little bit of the weight slowing starting to slide off my shoulders."

Staff at Hillsborough Hospital got him back into a routine, said Mark — taking his anti-anxiety medication again regularly, eating regular meals, and getting back into a regular sleeping pattern. He talked to a psychiatrist every day of the five days he was there and discussed what he needed to work on and strategies to help him cope.

Hillsborough Hospital is a secure psychiatric hospital that offers in-patient care for those struggling with acute or ongoing mental illness. (Randy McAndrew/CBC News)

"Each day just got a little better," he said. "It was what I needed." 

It also helped to see other patients in the hospital, he said, and realize he wasn't alone in his struggles. Since being released, he's been talking to a counsellor regularly again.  

"It's like flicking a light switch. It made that kind of a difference to me, black and white, day and night."

Psychiatrists have to admit patients

According to P.E.I.'s chief of mental health and addictions, Dr. Heather Keizer, Islanders can't admit themselves or their relatives or friends. Under the law, only a psychiatrist can admit a patient, whether it's a voluntary or involuntary  psychiatric admission.

"Every patient that is admitted into hospital must have a psychiatric assessment," she said.

Up until this past spring, patients in the Charlottetown area were admitted through the emergency department at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital to Unit 9, the psychiatric unit. If patients required a lengthier stay, they were admitted to the Hillsborough Hospital.

Hillsborough Hospital has a limited number of beds for psychiatric patients. (Shane Hennessey/CBC News)

But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Unit 9 was cleared of mental health patients to make way for potential coronavirus patients. Some were sent to Hillsborough Hospital, but most were sent home, according to the province.

The psychiatrist-on-call for the province is on duty for 24 hours and is responsible for overseeing all mental health patients in P.E.I. and deciding who to admit — including those who show up at hospital emergency rooms, are referred by family doctors, or are patients already in hospital who are having issues.

Triaging admissions

"The psychiatrist-on-call has quite a burden of responsibility," said Keizer. The advantage, though, is that they have a good overview of the situation province-wide, and how many beds are available. "That's why they're empowered to decide who gets admitted or not."

Keizer said when she's on call, there might be two or three beds available at the start of the day, and she'll often see six to 10 patients that day. "While I'm seeing patients, I have to sort of grapple with a triage around 'How do I manage those resources?'"

However, she said, even if there are no inpatient psychiatric beds available, if someone is extremely distressed and "quite psychiatrically ill….I will probably admit that patient" to a hospital bed "because it wouldn't be safe for them to go home." She's told all psychiatrists to do the same thing. That bed could be in the hospital emergency department, though.

When psychiatrists are on call they have to triage patients to determine who gets admitted to a hospital bed, said Dr. Heather Keizer, chief of mental health and addictions on P.E.I. (Kirk Pennell/CBC News)

Keizer wouldn't comment on Mark's situation or what hospital staff may have said or decided, for privacy reasons, but she said there are always patients in the "grey zone" who psychiatrists might see one day and send them home if they have support there.

"You have to evaluate the situation in that moment," she said. But that support may not work for them, and if they continue to be distressed and come back, they may end up being admitted. 

In April, after the province emptied Unit 9, it set up Psychiatric Urgent Care Clinics (PUCCs) at Hillsborough Hospital and Prince County Hospital in Summerside. They're open during the day and people can walk in, without a referral, if they are in urgent need of mental health help.

Patients are assessed by a nurse, and can talk to a psychiatrist over Zoom, if it's deemed necessary. Health PEI said the clinics have been well used. At the same time, Keizer has said the beds in Unit 9 need to be reopened. That's something the health minister said he aims to have happen by the end of October. 

Psychiatric Urgent Care Clinics were set up in April at the Hillsborough Hospital and the Prince County Hospital to divert mental health patients from emergency rooms. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Hoping for change

Mark said he has a great group of friends he can call for support — but he did feel he needed professional help at that time.

"It's still an everyday struggle. I'm not going to lie and say that, you know, I'm 100 per cent right now, but I am 100 per cent better than I was back then."

He hopes by sharing his story, it will enlighten health professionals to change the way they approach those seeking help.

He also encourages anyone struggling with their mental health not to put off asking for help. 

"I literally felt like I've been given a second chance. That's why I need this to come to light."

There are a limited number of psychiatric hospital beds, but those at risk of harming themselves or others will be admitted, said Keizer. (Kirk Pennell/CBC News)

Help line information:

Anyone needing emotional support, crisis intervention or help with problem solving in P.E.I. can contact The Island Helpline at 1-800-218-2885, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

For more information about mental health services on P.E.I., find resources from Health PEI here, or from the Canadian Mental Health Association P.E.I. Division here.

Islanders can also call the main toll-free COVID-19 information line to find out how to get support and help if they're struggling with stress, anxiety or depression: 1-833-533-9333.

More from CBC P.E.I.

About the Author

Sally Pitt

Producer

Sally Pitt is a producer with CBC and has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years in online, TV, radio and print. She specializes in justice issues and also works with the CBC Atlantic Investigative Unit. You can reach her at sally.pitt@cbc.ca.

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