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For street people of all ages, mental health a critical issue

From the Montreal Gazette

Dans la rue’s six counsellors and two staff psychologists do what they can to help young people who are hurting. For some that’s not enough.

“We have some cases that are scary,” said Tchitacov. “The person is going to hang themselves or they are going to kill somebody. They are completely disconnected. So we go to a judge and get (a temporary committal order).”

In most cases, within 48 hours, those kids are back on the streets.

That happens in Saskatchewan but often times the order is ignored by an emergency room doctor and the patient never even sees a psychiatrist.  I have seen people sent to RUH on orders only to have them back in 40 minutes because they “presented well”.

“We’ve had people at crisis centres ask my staff, ‘Well, how serious is the crisis?’ You stop and say, ‘What do you mean? Are you a crisis centre? Your mandate is to help people in crisis. Are there degrees of crisis?’ ”

Still, Tchitacov understands their motivation.

“Everybody is scared. Everybody is so overwhelmed that they are reluctant to open their doors to more difficult cases. They know this is going to be a handful, and they try to find ways not to take it in,” he said.

“Imagine the poor kid. It’s a whole other thing to get somebody to the stage of actually coming to you and saying I need help now. You start working like the devil on the phone and you aren’t getting anywhere.”

There are some encouraging signs attitudes and access to programs are changing. Corbin is Dans la rue’s delegate to the Learning Community, a national coalition seeking ways to raise public awareness and break down the stigmas associated with mental illness. And she said the centre for street youth will soon begin a welcome partnership with the psychiatry department at Notre Dame hospital to assist young people experiencing their first psychosis.

But Corbin said there’s another big challenge: getting young people, especially the males who make up 60 per cent of Dans la rue’s clientele, to admit they may need help.

“There’s the whole machismo thing. ‘I’m the one that’s in charge.’ … The whole invincibility of life comes crashing down and you don’t know what to do anymore. So you end up in panic mode,” Corbin said.

“It is hard to break the taboo of a mental illness and see it as an illness and not as a weakness. Someone has a broken leg, you go and get it treated. Well, if you have depression or anxiety or schizophrenia, you go and get it treated.”

It’s difficult enough for many adults to face up to mental illness.

“Add to that the whole ‘I have to be strong’ and all the rest of it when you are young,” she said.

In Saskatoon you have the race aspect as well.  I have listened to more than one mental health professional tell me that those who are aboriginal and from the west side of Saskatoon get far worse mental health care than those that are white and from the suburbs.  It’s really frustrating because there isn’t anything we can do about it. 

I have listened to members on both sides of the Legislative Assembly admit to the problems in the mental health system in Saskatchewan.  While there has been progress (and mistakes) made by both the NDP and now the Saskatchewan Party, there is a long way to go.  If there was one bit of advice that I could give Premier Brad Wall and the future NDP leader, it would be to form a bi-partisan committee to fix and monitor mental healthcare in Saskatchewan.  Take it out of the realm of partisan politics and just fix it.  They are Saskatchewan’s most vulnerable people, they use up a lot of the health budget, use a disproportionate amount of resources for housing and social services but it is also something that as a province we can fix. 

The flipside of it is that if we don’t do something about it, it becomes a problem that can grow out of hand as other jurisdictions have experienced.

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