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'They just leave you in crisis': A mother struggles to find mental health treatment for her daughter

"I had no information on how to help her," says Anna, a mother who struggled and continues to struggle to understand her daughter's mental health, and how she can best help her.
After years of searching for answers, one Nova Scotia mother finally found the diagnosis for her daughter. (Paulius Brazauskas/Shutterstock)

During Cross Country Checkup's discussion on the state of mental health support in Canada, Anna from Fredericton called to share her story – a long and gruelling struggle to find the correct diagnosis, treatment and support for her mentally-ill daughter. And Anna says she is not the only parent navigating what she calls, "a broken system."

Listen to her interview with host Duncan McCue:

Duncan McCue: You've got a child with mental health issues, I understand. Could you tell us about that?

Anna: We always knew that there was something up and I had taken her to the doctor at different times. The doctor would say, "Oh, she's just difficult." You know... if your kid is just difficult or there's something up — you just have that intuition. I have two other daughters, so I knew that she wasn't the same. She wasn't developing the same as them.

DM: How old was she when the process first started?

Anna: She was 12 when she was referred to a pediatrician who misdiagnosed her with Asperger's. I knew it wasn't that, so she just kept getting worse until she turned 15 and then that's when all hell broke loose.

DM: What happened?

Anna: She started to try and hurt herself — talking about suicide, talking about those kinds of things. It was really alarming. I was scared and I didn't know what to do. It started at school and she told her guidance counsellor and he told me, "Anna, she is sick."

DM: What's it like for you as a parent when you hear your child is self-harming?

Anna: Devastating. I knew before it got to the point where she was cutting herself, but she wanted to — she wanted to hurt herself. Within a week or so, it just kept happening and I took her to the hospital, to the ER.

DM: How did that go?

Anna: Not good. That's where the problems really began. When she would talk about hurting herself, I would take her to the ER and they would put us in this little room secluded from everybody. And we would wait, sometimes for 16 hours before a doctor would come and see her. Finally, the psychiatrist would come in and not a child psychiatrist. We went several times, probably seven times to the ER. Around the fifth time, they admitted her. The doctor diagnosed her after only seeing her for 10 minutes with borderline personality disorder.

Here you are, you're sitting there and you find out your kid has borderline personality disorder and you start Googling it because they don't give you any information. I come to find out that you really can't diagnose a 15-year-old with that disorder because their brain is still growing. We got that diagnosis and they sent us home. And it happened again, we went back to the ER. This happened about five more times before she was admitted. She was put in the pediatric unit because she was too young for the psychiatric ward. The nurses didn't know how to deal with her. There were no counsellors. They just put her in a room and asked her to reflect.

DM: How did that go over with your daughter?

Anna: It didn't go over. She just kept getting worse. She was in pediatrics for five weeks. She kept trying to hurt herself in the hospital, until finally, I insisted that she go to the IWK Health Centre, which specializes in care for women and children.

DM: How is she doing now?

Anna: She's doing better, but the point is that there was no support. The support should start in the ER. It starts with the nurses and the doctors in the ER. When we went there all those times, I never felt like they really recognized what was going on. I felt shameful for having a kid in there trying to hurt herself. I felt like a bad parent. I had no information on how to help her. They just leave you there in crisis. I had nobody to talk to, nobody explaining what's going on. And that trickles down into the school system because she couldn't go to school for two years. The teachers didn't understand what anxiety is; they're not equipped to handle kids who have mental health issues.

She's seen as a 'problem kid' or a kid who comes from a 'bad home' – none of that is true. It's a broken system, at least here in Fredericton. There's no support for parents and families, the wait time is too long, there's misdiagnoses all over the place and I've seen it with other kids who struggle the same as mine.

Anna's and Duncan McCue's comments have been edited and condensed. This online segment was prepared by Ilina Ghosh, on Feb. 13, 2017.

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