Parents of teen with mental illness say ‘broken’ NL health care system has let them down

About 70 percent of mental illness begins during childhood and adolescence, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada. (Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock)

WARNING: This story contains details about suicidal thoughts.

On a windy October day, a mother and father sit on a park bench somewhere on Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula, frustrated and exhausted.

At the age of 13, their daughter is dealing with various mental illnesses.

But instead of being admitted to a residential treatment facility, the girl is failing, her parents say.

“This system is broken. It is totally broken,” said the mother.

CBC News has agreed not to identify the family in order to protect the underage girl.

She has been diagnosed with DMDD, short for disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, ADHD, an anxiety disorder, and depression, and has been on medication for the past three years.

Symptoms of DMDD include severe anger outbursts several times a week and irritability or anger most of the day, almost every day, making daily activities difficult.

“This is not a child who is in an arbitrary state of depression. This is a child who now resorts to suicidal thoughts on a daily basis,” the mother said.

Yet the years-long struggle to get help for the girl has failed, the family says.

No more options

The battle began when the family moved to Newfoundland and Labrador in April 2020.

Three months earlier, they had put their daughter on a waiting list for a psychiatrist at Janeway Children’s Hospital in St. John’s.

A whole year later, she finally got one.

“The only reason she went to a psychiatrist was the number of times we took her to the Janeway. They gave in eventually,’ said the mother.

But even a therapist at the Janeway and a psychiatrist didn’t help. Suicidal thoughts are common in the family home. Not sure what to do, the parents make weekly calls to the mental health crisis team at the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.

All of this, the mother says, could be avoided if her daughter had a place in a residential treatment facility. But the family says they’ve been through one denial after another.

“We had to believe there’s no room in the Janeway to help,” the mother said.

They had that feeling until July, when their daughter was admitted.

But after a week they received a phone call: their daughter was released again.

“We tried to pick her up,” the mother said. “We were told that if we didn’t come to pick her up, Child Protective Services would be involved.”

They say they are not sure why the teen was sent home. “There was no follow-up after she was released. We have been kept in the dark about everything,” the mother said.

Once again, hospital visits and police calls became the family’s only resources.

“They talk to her and say, ‘Well, she’s not in trouble. She’s not a threat, she’s not a threat to herself,’ so they send her home,” the father said. “But here she is, saying she wants to kill herself.”

Search for help

In their desperation, the parents also contacted Health Secretary John Haggie and several politicians.

Paul Dinn, who represents the Topsail-Paradise district in the House of Representatives and is the progressive conservative health critic, was one of the few who tried to help, they say.

Dinn says these kinds of stories frustrate him.

“To be honest, I get a lot of stories like that,” Dinn said. “My heart goes out to them. I’ll do what I can, but it’s getting to a point where someone else has to stand up and really change something.”

The parents of a 13-year-old girl say their daughter is not receiving appropriate care. She sees a psychiatrist at Janeway Hospital in St. John’s, but her parents say she needs more intensive treatment. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

The provincial government, Dinn said, must address mental health needs, especially among children and teens.

“There are about 1.2 million children in Canada dealing with mental health issues, and only about 20 percent actually get the help they need,” Dinn says.

Not wanting to be part of the population that isn’t getting the help they need, the parents turned to the Tuckamore Center in Paradise. The Eastern Health facility provides 24-hour care for up to 12 teens, ages 12 to 18.

After a long application procedure and another 10 weeks of waiting for the decision of the facility board, the family was also rejected there. A copy of the letter setting out the decision was obtained by the parents.

The teen “displays no combination of the following mental health problems or risky behavior,” the letter reads, including self-harm or a “dangerous lifestyle.”

The mother told CBC News she does not understand how grasping knives and expressing suicidal thoughts are not dangerous behaviors, and says she believes action should be taken before her child injures herself.

‘Right kind of crazy’

Dinn calls the response “ridiculous”, but suspects that the staff was limited by space and resources.

“In many ways, the parent who is with that child on a daily basis probably knows better than any assessment what’s going on,” Dinn said. “She walks away. ‘Sorry, but you’re not ‘crazy’ enough to be here.’”

Using the term “crazy,” Dinn refers to Embracing Experiences, a report released in May by the Canadian Mental Health Association that details people’s experiences with mental health in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Being “too crazy” or “not crazy enough” to get care was one of the concerns expressed in the report.

“One quote was, ‘I must have the right kind of madman.’ That’s sad… When you hear comments like that, it’s mind-boggling,” said Dinn.

Paul Dinn is MHA for Topsail-Paradise. Dinn says he often hears from desperate parents. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC)

In a statement to CBC News, Eastern Health said it cannot publicly discuss a patient’s case, but noted that admissions are made based on psychiatric assessments. The health authority declined an interview.

It further said that residential treatment is not appropriate for every mental illness, as “youth must be medically and psychiatrically stable and able to cope cognitively with the demands of the treatment program for maximum benefit.”

Health Secretary John Haggie also declined an interview.

In a statement to CBC News, the Department of Health and Community Services said that “this is a dire situation and [the department] whole [understands] the upset experienced by the family.”

It went on to say that people receive care that suits their individual needs and that other mental health services are available to the public, such as Doorways and Bridge the gApp, a mobile app focused on mental health.

But better long-term care needs to be available, Dinn says. “It’s not solved with a pill, it’s not solved with a website, it’s not solved with a dial-up line,” he said.

Back on the park bench, the mother agrees that these are systemic problems.

‘Come on and help people. I guarantee we’re not the only people screaming for help,” the mother said.

“This is unacceptable. I will fight for her until I am dead. I will fight.”

If you or someone you know needs mental health support, call the 24-hour Mental Health Crisis Line at 1-888-737-4668 or the 24-hour Kid’s Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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