Fending for ourselves
author: marty grande-sherbert | op-ed editor
Disclaimer: This article contains non-explicit discussion of suicide, hospitalization and self-harm.
Healthcare in Canada is free. I’ve had many American friends express their amazement and wonder at the concept, and I agree that it is a good thing to have government-funded healthcare (although I think it should be a right and not a privilege). However, while I’ve never avoided a hospital visit for fear of paying a bill, I have still lacked access to care that I needed because of gaps in the system. This is because I am mentally ill, and the price of that is always that I have to wait to be remembered.
Mentally ill people in Canada know how to fend for themselves. We have to know, because when we ask for an appointment with a therapist or psychiatrist, it can literally be years until we get one. The waiting lists in Canada’s mental healthcare system are absurdly long, because everyone (rightfully) can access them, but there are not enough people investing time and money in addressing that reality. All of the stigma and shame that people speak about during Mental Health Awareness days, people with mental illness fight that until they are brave enough to tell a doctor about it…and are then told to wait another four months until anyone responds. It can feel, frankly, like nobody cares.
This is why we fend for ourselves. I didn’t have access to medication for years, even though I knew I was sick. I have friends who went through the same thing. We find ways to self-medicate, often with drugs or other self-destructive habits, because so many of us cannot function otherwise. This is, especially for teenagers, also how self-injury begins. Many children (including myself) were not taken seriously by any healthcare provider until these coping mechanisms appeared. Simultaneously, people are punished for not coping the “correct” way, even though the healthy alternative was so hard to reach.
Even when we are medicated, medications often cause side-effects, and we have to wait until our next appointment to tell a doctor that we’re gaining weight, feeling more depressed, breaking out in rashes or otherwise physically suffering. Although my GP will check my blood levels to make sure my medications cause no organ damage, there is almost no communication between them and my psychiatrist; my GP thought that my mood stabilizers were anticonvulsants, and asked me once how long I had been having seizures (I hadn’t been). I didn’t consider before then that the doctors actually didn’t know what they were doing.
The saddest and most alarming thing about patients waiting and waiting for doctors to see them is what it takes to be considered a priority. Mental illness is hard to quantify, and the only case under which hospitalization is always necessary is when a life is in immediate danger. This means two things: One, patients often lie to their therapists about not being suicidal when they are, because they don’t want to be hospitalized. Two, patients often threaten or attempt suicide because they do not know how else to make someone listen.
Either scenario is disastrous for the safety of people living with mental illness. We cannot trust our healthcare providers to care about us or put us first, to the point that we will flip a coin to land on either relief or death. We can only imagine how this situation is worsened for people who live in rural communities far from hospitals, or people who already experience poverty and may not be able to spare all this time to get help.
The state of our mental healthcare system, in this way, is a matter of saving lives. We need to put energy toward meeting people where their needs are and getting them help faster and when they need it, not just whenever there is an opening. An effort in this domain would do a lot, and would if nothing else suggest to Canadians living with mental illness that what affects them really is important.
If you need mental health support, please contact Counselling Services at 306-585-4491 or the Mobile Crisis Line at 306-525-533