Sask. mother fears system failing recovering opioid addicts seeking help

Alison Akert Rogers thought it was a miracle when her son told her he needed to get mental health help as he recovers from a six-year addiction. However, the family hit a number of roadblocks as he tried to find support.

Alison Akert Rogers shares story of son struggling to find mental health support

Alison Akert Rogers said she thought it was a miracle when her son told her he needed to get mental health help as he recovers from a six-year addiction. (Submitted by Alison Akert Rogers)

A Saskatchewan mother is scared for people like her son, who can't find the help they are seeking as they recover from opioid addictions.

"When you want help, you can't get it; you're treated like you're a waste of their time. And it scares me. It scares me for the people who need help."

Alison Akert Rogers said she thought it was a miracle when her son, Justin Hillier — who has struggled with his addiction for six years — told her he needed to get mental health help.

"He explained it to me that he thought just getting clean, off the opiate prescription drugs, would make his life normal, in his quote — just like everybody else," Akert Rogers said from her home in Creighton.

Alison Akert Rogers said her son, Justin Hillier — pictured here with his daughter, Brooklyn — realized he needed mental health help to battle his addiction. (Submitted by Alison Akert Rogers)

"A year and a half into the methadone program and him being clean, of course, the mental health issues, the underlying issues … started to surface. And he realized that, you know what, he has to get help. And if he doesn't get that mental health help, he's going to end up relapsing back on to the opiate drugs."

Along with Hillier's four-year-old daughter, Akert Rogers took her 22-year-old son on the five-hour drive to Saskatoon last Monday.

Akert Rogers explained that they both wanted Hillier to be admitted to the Dube Centre, where Hillier had been admitted after overdosing when he was 17.

"He did receive good care during the three weeks he did spend there after he overdosed, so that was his choice to go to first."

What greeted them was hours of waiting. After admitting himself as an outpatient at the Royal University Hospital in the morning, Hillier couldn't see a general practitioner until the afternoon.

Akert Rogers said psychiatrists couldn't assess her son until late into the evening.

By Wednesday afternoon, Hillier was finally in the Dube Centre. However, even though he was told there was a bed open for him, Hillier was moved to Prince Albert on Friday. When he arrived at the new facility, Hillier faced more waiting and more assessment.

"It's hard on him because he already has all these struggles and now, you know, throughout this whole process, he's just been further agitated."

The director of mental health and addiction services at the Saskatoon Health Region could not comment on the specifics of this case.

But Tracy Muggli has empathy for any parent who struggles to find help for a child.   

"It can be very difficult and systems are sometimes complex to navigate," Muggli said.

"As a province we could probably do a better job on helping people understand how and where to access services for different conditions related to mental health and addictions, " she said.

"Typically speaking nobody would wait an entire day to see a psychiatrist, if the emergency doctor sees an individual and asks for a psychiatric consult, those consults are happening with hours."

Muggli said the health region has been concentrating its efforts in being able to offer mental health and addictions services in the community, so that inpatient care can be avoided.

Today, she said, there is no wait list for outpatient addictions care, whether that be for adults or younger people.

Muggli added that the health region has set up a central telephone number that anyone can call to find out how to best access those services. It is 306-655-7777. The same information, she said, can be accessed through the province's health line at 811. 

Opioid hospitalizations high in Saskatchewan

Just last week, a report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information said Saskatchewan has the highest rate in the country for opioid poisonings. From 2014 to 2015, there were 20.5 hospitalizations per 100,000 people.

When it comes to treating those still struggling with their addiction, addictions consultant Dr. Peter Butt told CBC News that there is no capacity in the system for treatment. Patients, at times, are already spending several months on wait lists.

Butt said it's no better when it comes to treating the underlying issues of the addictions.

"There are problems with access to mental health care, and 30 to 50 per cent of people who struggle with a substance abuse disorder, such as an opioid addiction, will have a concurrent mental health problem," Butt said.

He said along with there not being enough psychiatrists, there are sometimes issues with finding psychiatrists willing to treat addicts. 

"I've personally tried to refer somebody to a psychiatrist who said they didn't want to see them because of their drug addiction. They thought it was hopeless and there was no point of seeing them whatsoever and they rejected the referral."

'It's getting worse and worse'

Akert Rogers knows her son is just one of many people struggling with an addition to opioids. She said she wants to spread the word about the abuse, because people don't realize how addictive and readily available the drugs are.

"I fear it's getting worse and worse. The addiction side of it, the opiates are getting worse and worse across Canada and the United States. And our health care system is so broken when it comes to mental health."

Along with awareness, Akert Rogers said it's her hope to see more beds, doctors and psychiatrists available for the people who need it. 


After spending five years in radio, Courtney Markewich joined CBC Saskatoon in 2016. She is currently a Social Media News Editor/Presenter for @CBCSask and @CBCSaskatoon.