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The Lack Of Mental Health Services In Rural B.C. Made My Kid Sicker

I never thought that we would be desperately seeking mental health services. When we did need them, they were inaccessible.

As told to HuffPost Canada associate editor Connor Garel

Osoyoos, B.C. — At age nine, my daughter wanted to die.

Between her autism, depressive moods, severe anxiety and a cocktail of medications, life for her was hell. On one occasion, she tried to jump from the top of a staircase. On another, she tried jumping out of the car on the highway. My husband and I had to hide the knives and the scissors. We had to request approval from the local fire department to put locks on the inside of the house, because she kept trying to escape.

As her parents, we wondered: did we do something wrong?

My husband, Mike, and I did everything we could to find help for our daughter's mental health needs.
Rebecca Cambol
My husband, Mike, and I did everything we could to find help for our daughter's mental health needs.

At the time, we were living in Osoyoos: a rural town in British Columbia with a population of 6,000 and no major hospital. The nearest one was 45 minutes away, in Penticton. The smaller one, in Oliver, B.C., was more like a walk-in clinic. Anyone living in a small town knows that resources can be limited — shopping, school options, jobs. But I never thought that we would be desperately seeking mental health services, or that when we did need them, they would be totally inaccessible.

In 2006, the B.C. Medical Journal reported that most of rural B.C. suffers from a “severe shortage of mental health services.” Several studies after that (from the province’s auditor-general in 2016, a 2019 coroner’s dispatch on suicide, and an annual report from the provincial health officer) confirmed the same thing: that the province’s rural communities were struggling when it came to mental health support.

Before the anxiety, my daughter was happy. She had a great sense of humour. She was fun, silly, chatty, busy-bodied, and practically lived at the dance studio. And she loved school.

That started to change in 2015, when she was nine and we noticed her social anxiety worsened. The onset of chronic bowel problems made her obsessive and sick. At school, she had trouble fitting in. There were problems with friends. She was regularly having misunderstandings with teachers who weren’t equipped to deal with students on the spectrum. Taking her to school in the morning became a struggle.

So, we started her on antidepressants. The plan was one prescription. We just wanted her to have fewer anxious moments and to feel more comfortable in her own skin. But in under a year, she had tried 10 different medications. Antipsychotics, tranquilizers, anxiety pills, antidepressants — at one point, she was taking up to five pills daily, each with their own unique side effects. She quickly spiralled out of control. She became aggressive. She began hurting herself: punching herself, banging her head against the wall, pulling her hair out in clumps. She threatened to kill herself often.

For up to eight hours at a time, she’d be inconsolable. She would kick, hit, spit, bite and grab me or her dad. We were told to restrain her when she got like this, and one time, when her dad was doing just that, she kneed him in the face and broke his cheekbone.

“I didn’t think we were incapable parents. I thought we were capable parents, asking for help.”

This hardcore, non-stop behaviour continued for almost a year, until she reached her worst. It felt like I was living with Jekyll and Hyde. I had no idea what I was waking up to every day. My son, who is also on the spectrum, has had his own battles with anxiety and obsessive tendencies. But he was never put on so many medications, nor was he ever aggressive.

When we started looking for more help, we didn’t know how difficult it would be to find. Neither our pediatrician nor our Child and Youth with Special Needs Worker could secure mental health counselling or urgent hospital consultations. There was always some loophole, a long waitlist, or extensive screening process. Every moment of the day, I was trying to figure out who could help us, who to call next.

We tried three times to request help from the Ministry of Child and Youth Mental Health, but we were always denied. The waitlist was eight months to two years out.

We wanted access to the child psychiatric inpatient program at B.C.’s Children’s Hospital — so we could finally get her a proper assessment, and a second look at all those medications — but she was denied admittance. And anyway, the hospital was in Vancouver, five hours away.

On one video conference call with a neuropsychiatrist, we were told that, if her behaviour didn’t pick up, we would have to consider putting her in foster care. I couldn’t believe it. It was devastating. It broke our hearts. What do you do when professionals recommend you give your daughter away? What if you think they’re wrong? I didn’t think we were incapable parents. I thought we were capable parents, asking for help.

We didn’t know what else to do. We finally took her to the hospital in Penticton, a much closer 45 minutes away. It was our last hope. Compared to the nearest hospital in Oliver, where they’d attempt to treat her symptoms with a sedative (which would not work) and send her home, it seemed like our best option. The facility is bigger and has a pediatric wing, so we thought maybe they could help her obtain the right help.

But apparently they couldn’t help us either. The hospital has an adult psychiatric unit, but nothing for adolescents or children. When she got there, the emergency department isolated her. I’m sure there’s a name for the room they put her in. It’s a little space, with a mattress on the floor, a steel toilet, a steel sink, and a small window. There might have been a chair. I assume it’s used for distressed or violent patients in the psychiatric wing. I always called it the prison room.

Our family's experience isn't unique. Many people in rural B.C. can't access the mental health services they need.
Rebecca Cambol
Our family's experience isn't unique. Many people in rural B.C. can't access the mental health services they need.

It was during a 2016 hospital visit, when she was 10, that my daughter looked at me and said, “Just get me off this fucking medication.” We knew right then that we had to listen. We told the pediatrician we needed instructions on how to wean her off the medications on our own, and against his recommendations, we did. We weren’t sure of ourselves. We just knew it couldn’t get any worse.

Eventually, things got better. My daughter’s old self began to return. When she started to struggle again in 2018, at age 12, we decided we wouldn’t go back down the path of waitlists, prison rooms and no resources. We moved to the much larger urban centre of West Kelowna, and managed to enroll her into an adolescent psychiatric unit for an assessment. We also found a mental health crisis counsellor, who basically changed our lives.

Moving away didn’t solve everything immediately, but getting help was a much quicker and more successful process in West Kelowna. We still love Osoyoos, and we’ve never ruled out the possibility of moving back one day. But it wasn’t until we left that we realized how isolated from resources we were there. I know for a fact I was not alone in those challenges. I could easily write a list of people in Osoyoos who have had their own struggles trying to navigate the mental health system. Finding the proper help, guidance and knowledge can be extremely challenging in a small town.

My daughter is doing really well now. She’s back at competitive dance. She’s more relaxed, and happier than ever. After a three-week stay and assessment at Kelowna’s Adolescent Psychiatric Unit, she got a prescription that was researched specifically for her symptoms. It treats depressive disorders and anxiety, without any of those disruptive side effects. She’s going to school every day now, and when she does miss class, it’s because of common teenager things — not anxiety.

The Child and Youth Mental Health centre called us almost two years after we requested help and said they could finally see her. But by then we didn’t need it anymore. Our daughter is back.

Are you in a crisis? If you need help, contact Crisis Services Canada at their website or by calling 1-833-456-4566. If you know someone who may be having thoughts of suicide, visit CAMH’s resource to learn how to talk about suicide with the person you’re worried about.

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