'How many Islanders have to be failed by the system?' P.E.I. parents fight for better mental health care
On a rural highway along the south shore of Prince Edward Island, a young mother leads a tour of her family's airy new one-storey house and goes over the safety plan.
"If he was violent and throwing things out in this area and it escalated quickly, I would just pick up my three-year-old and we would run to this bathroom and lock the door inside," she says.
The "he" she's referring to is her eight-year-old son, freckled with grass-stained knees.
The mother says she first noticed signs of her son's severe anxiety and oppositional defiant disorder when he was just a toddler in daycare. He would fly into hysterics whenever she tried to drop him off.
It was the first time I was told it wasn't something to do with his sleeping pattern or his diet.- P.E.I mother
It's been five years, nine trips to emergency and three hospital stays since then, but she says in that time she has only managed to get him a single appointment with one in-person child psychiatrist in the province.
"It was the first time I was told it wasn't something to do with his sleeping pattern or his diet," she says.
"I've never felt so validated in all my life."
The mother is one of a growing number of parents across Prince Edward Island who are speaking out about the difficulty accessing mental health care for children in the province.
Mental health crisis
P.E.I. has had one of the worst psychiatrist-to-patient ratios in the country, a situation that has only become more critical following the recent resignation of four doctors.
The Current has heard from parents who say their mentally ill children have been held in the emergency unit of the Charlottetown hospital room for days, even weeks. According to the P.E.I Health Department, the longest a patient waited for a psychiatric bed last year in emergency was an astonishing 61 days, although it's not known whether that patient was a child or an adult.
Related: 'Every single story is heartbreaking': Island families share mental health struggles
Even the province's chief of mental health and addictions, Dr. Heather Keizer, recently publicly criticized government inaction on mental health and called the lack of care a crisis.
"I would say that at the moment, we are at a difficult place, to be very frank," she said at the time.
Public fight for help
The campaign, called #HowManyWade, has encouraged parents to bring what's traditionally been a very private fight for mental health help, out into the public. They even have bumper stickers with the slogan, which Stewart-Clark says are so popular she can't keep enough in stock.
Stewart-Clark, who's originally from P.E.I., first learned of the struggles faced by some parents when they began posting on a Facebook page she started for mothers to share baby supplies.
Related: 'There are many people in crises': P.E.I. chief of mental health calls for better supports
She says her dismay turned to shock when she discovered one evening that a number of families in the group were stuck in the Charlottetown hospital emergency room waiting for days, even weeks, for psychiatric beds.
People have stepped up with the recruitment effort for psychiatry.- Dr. Heather Keizer
"We are asking the question of the premier: How many Islanders have to be failed by the system? How many people do we have to lose to suicide before we really give this issue the attention ... that it deserves?" says Stewart-Clark.
Keizer says in the short time since she's spoken out, she's already noticed a change in how the government is addressing mental health.
"I would say there's been a very significant shift in the last three weeks. We've got real commitments [of money] to help us," she says.
"People have stepped up with the recruitment effort for psychiatry."
Listen to this segment at the top of the web post.
This segment was produced by Halifax network producer Mary-Catherine McIntosh.