'I was desperate': Sask. men say mental health system failing people in crisis

A Saskatchewan man who says the mental health system let him down when he was in crisis has started a petition for a new ministry for mental health.

Todd Rennebohm, Ryan Wright call for new ministry of mental health, separate emergency intake

Todd Rennebohm was part of a group of protesters who took their push for better mental health support to the Legislative Building on Friday, Oct. 14. (Todd Rennebohm/Facebook)

Two Saskatchewan men who say the mental health system let them down when they were in crisis are pushing for drastic change.

Todd Rennebohm, from Indian Head, Sask., has started a petition calling for a new ministry of mental health.

He turned to a hospital emergency room when he was feeling suicidal, and said he was lucky to see a psychiatrist that day.

But he was shocked when the psychiatrist allowed him to leave the hospital. 

Long wait for treatment

"He just agreed with me, 'Yeah, I agree you're suicidal, just keep taking your meds and come back when we have room,'" he said.

"It's like, 'Yes, you have a broken leg, but please come back when you have two broken legs.'"

More recently, he returned to the hospital emergency room, intoxicated and fearing he would take his own life.

While he was undergoing detox in hospital, he agreed with his doctor's recommendation that he should go into a treatment program, only to find that he would have to wait 10 weeks.

Rennebohm then waited two weeks to see an addictions counsellor to get a referral for the program.

Pushing for change

He decided to start an online petition for a new ministry for mental health after Health Minister Jim Reiter was quoted saying his job was "like drinking from a fire hose."

"I already knew there was long waiting [times] and cuts being made so when he said something like that it tells me that you've got to divide and conquer this job," Rennebohm told CBC Radio's Morning Edition on Tuesday.

It seems that mental health often takes a back seat.- Ryan Wright

He's also worried about cuts to health care budgets, big caseloads for psychiatrists and excessive patient travel.

Rennebohm said he personally drives about 10 hours per week to attend appointments. His petition had about 470 signatures early Tuesday afternoon.

Saskatoon man Ryan Wright is also speaking out about his belief that the mental health system is failing people in crisis.

He wrote a blog post entitled "Mental Health in Saskatoon: We are failing one another."

Separate emergency intake needed: Wright

Wright also went to the emergency room in a desperate situation, and said he panicked when he was told he might have to wait six months to a year to see a psychiatrist. 

"I was desperate and I was panicked and I was scared, and I had no place else to go," he said.

"I was really lucky that I was still very clear and very lucid but I would say that someone who is maybe in psychosis, or having a bipolar episode, they might not be able to advocate for themselves."

He believes Saskatoon needs a separate intake for mental health emergencies.

"It seems that mental health often takes a back seat or competes unfairly with physical injury, and I think that maybe a lot of people just don't realize how difficult it is or how much pain people go through," he said.

Sask. government measures

Asked if it would consider Wright or Rennebohm's suggestions, the Saskatchewan government said it had implemented a number of measures to assist people in crisis as part of its 10-year Mental Health and Addictions Action Plan

It noted an initiative that pairs a police officer with a mental health worker to attend calls for people experiencing a mental health crisis. 

The program was first introduced to Saskatoon in 2014 and later expanded to Regina.

A government spokesperson also pointed to its training and certification or more than 1,000 people in the Mental Health Commission of Canada's Mental Health First Aid Course. 

Participants have included police, educators, Indigenous organizations, housing agencies and emergency medical workers, among others.

With files from CBC Radio's Morning Edition