Column: Ignoring mental health costly

My column this week

Over the last couple of weeks I have received a nonstop series of death threats against me in a variety of forms.

I have been told that I was going to be kicked through a window, my head cut off, and I was going to be killed as I went out to my car or when I went home. They all came from the same person and outside of being heckled when walking home one night, it was all empty threats.

The cause of the threats is complex but there are a lot of mental-health issues there. Our ideas of reality can be somewhat different, but when someone sees their life calling as Batman, you know it’s going to be a long day.

Working at an organization that is a social housing provider, we have an obligation to keep the facility safe for everyone inside it and the community around it. The easiest thing in the world would be to evict troubled clients, who would find themselves on the streets without any supports or help.

Eventually they end up back in jail. By then, however, you have more victims of crimes committed by those who don’t really realize what is happening around them.

Over the years I have repeatedly heard the plea, "he needs help," but mentalhealth help is really hard to get – even in extreme situations. A couple of months ago a client I was working with attempted suicide and was rushed to the hospital.

He was showing signs of obvious mental-health problems but instead of treating it as a suicide attempt, the doctor treated it as a drug overdose.

He was released in a couple of hours in even worse shape than when he went to the hospital.

The next day I called the health region’s mentalhealth intake line and was told that it was quite common for attempted suicides to be treated that way and there wasn’t much they could do other than recommending he see a family doctor and then get referred to a psychiatrist.

I got off the phone and shook my head; if going to the emergency room doesn’t work and if calling the Saskatoon Health Region’s mental-health intake line does nothing, how does anyone get any mental-health help in this city?

Dr. Anna Reid was recently named the head of the Canadian Medical Association. She talked quite openly about the need for quality housing as making a difference in people’s health. On the flip side, easy access to mental-health care for low income patients would make a big difference in keeping people housed.

The mental-health disorders get people evicted from housing and banned from shelters.

For women it leads them to working the streets and for men it often leads to drug abuse and other crime. The issue isn’t the crime, it’s a lack of treatment options, and no one seems to want to do anything about it. We wouldn’t tolerate this level of care anywhere else in the system.

One issue is a shortage of psychiatrists, available beds, nursing home beds, and a lack of spaces for really hard-to-care-for individuals. It strains everyone across Canada.

Another issue is voter apathy. As voters we care passionately about surgical and emergency room wait times and so they get improved. On a recent trip to RUH’s emergency room, they had signs up telling people that they may be timing your wait in an effort to speed things up. It works. My experience was excellent but the pain from a partially torn rotator cuff is a lot easier to deal with than someone who is struggling with schizophrenia or is trapped in a delusional world of fear.

Saskatchewan Health does a lot of benchmarking. Twenty-one different factors are tracked as part of the 2004 Comparable Health Indicators Report but almost nothing is said about mental health. If it’s not bench-marked, how can we expect change?

Across the country we have seen what happens when we underfund mental-health programs. It leads to an increase of people on the streets, it forces police into becoming mental-health workers, and in some situations it leads to deaths. Mental health is a complicated field but until we start to publicly address how we doing, how is it going to get better?

The bar to get help is too high, takes too long, and people end up too close to the edge. We deal a lot with the symptoms in our society – why not tackle the problem directly?

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