Cruel Cuts for the Mentally Ill
Again, the Liberal government hurts the vulnerable with its spending priorities.
By Rafe Mair, Yesterday, TheTyee.ca, October 26,2009
Today’s column is from the “we had to destroy the village in order to save it” school of thought. This from a CBC report:
“An estimated 90 agencies that have contracts with the Vancouver Coastal Health Region are being told to reduce costs, but provincial Health Minister Kevin Falcon says the reductions will not mean a cut in services.
“Falcon told the legislature Tuesday that his ministry is making changes in order to provide better service for those individuals coping with both mental health and addiction issues.”
This is from a report by Justine Hunter in the Globe and Mail:
“Health-care workers in Victoria will only be able to treat the most acute mental-health patients as budget cuts result in fewer beds, caseworkers and community support services.”
Let me identify my interest in this subject — I suffer from mental illness and have been treated for depression and anxiety for 20 years. I’ve been active in this field for some years and am a patron of the Canadian Mental Health Association in B.C. and founder of the Bottom Line Conference dealing with mental health in the workplace. On hearing about the cuts my otherwise mild disposition exploded in anger — let me tell you some of the reasons.
About one in five will suffer from mental illness in their lifetime and it’s no exaggeration to say that virtually every family will be affected in some way.
Many substance abuse cases involve mentally ill people who are self-medicating.
Mentally ill people are rejected by society and government as they wander helplessly and often without a home.
And most mental illness could be successfully treated if the mentally sick didn’t face an enormous stigma that blocks their path to the doctor’s office.
Health Minister Falcon’s merciless comments can be expected from a man who, as transportation minister, annoyed at rules for building highways, wished we were like China — whose government does as it pleases. His cuts are not to a system with a lot of “fat” in it but one which has always been strapped for money. I’ve said it before and will say it again — if the physically ill were treated in the way the mentally ill are, they would storm the legislature.
The problem is that you can’t, for the most part, see mental illness. It expresses itself through behaviour — uncontrollable behaviour. “Consumers,” as they’re called, often know that their behaviour is irrational, but are unable to cope with their stronger inner voices.
In 1988, out of the blue, I became convinced that I had cancer of the liver. I went to my Columbia medical dictionary and sure enough, there it was — liver cancer. I phoned my doctor, Mel Bruchet, in North Vancouver and was told that the earliest he could see me was the next day. I exploded with “I’ll be there in a few minutes and will wait for him.” I saw him and told him I had diagnosed myself with liver cancer.
He examined me and said “you dumb bugger…” (we were good friends) “you have gallstones.”
“You’re lying to me!” I said. I had an ultrasound the next day, and when the report confirmed that my liver was fine and that I did have gallstones, I still accused him of lying to me.
Mel then asked me how long it had been since my daughter was killed and I asked, “What the hell has that got to do with my liver cancer?”
He asked more questions, and by question number four I had broken into uncontrollable sobs while he held me like a baby. He then explained depression, what serotonin was and how a lack of it would explain my bizarre behaviour. He said “we’ll find the right medicine.” Fortunately, he did — and within a few days I felt as if I had come back from the dead.
Nothing to trifle with
Some years later I interviewed an American psychiatrist who, in an off-air moment, told me about a new medicine I should use. I went back to Mel who said “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” but finally gave in and prescribed it. I had to go off my medicine for two weeks which coincided with a holiday. Some holiday. I spent countless hours sobbing uncontrollably on Wendy’s shoulder. I got on my old meds as soon as I got back. It was a big lesson — depression, like any chronic ailment, was nothing to fool with. (Just as an aside, Mel was, at that time, one of a small minority of doctors who knew anything about depression. Today, thank God, that’s changed.)
In British Columbia there are thousands like me, but they remain untreated for one reason — the horrid stigma that society attaches to mental illness keeps them from seeking help. One’s afraid to tell one’s partner, one’s friends, and one’s employer. I “came out” by accident when taking a call on my show about 15 years ago. As the caller spoke, I found myself telling him that he could take it from me, a mental health consumer, that there was help — that he must see his doctor.
Loose talk that hurts
The stigma remains. We perpetuate it in how we talk. We say “he must be crazy” but would never say “he must have cancer of the stomach.” We tell each other jokes about mental illness. I vividly remember a colleague of mine saying, on air, “Our school was so small that our debating team had one schizophrenic on it.” Funny? Not if you’re a family dealing with this very serious illness.
With the Bottom Line Conference, I’ve been privileged to work with prominent businessman Michael Francis and president of the B.C. Federation of Labour Jim Sinclair — trying, with some success I think, to get management to recognize symptoms of mental illness and make help available through confidential employee assistance programs.
Where are our priorities?
Now, I’ll finish where I started. We have with us perhaps the most serious and widespread illness in our community. One, but only one, manifestation is in our homeless — who, having been evicted from hospitals, wander without support. Yet the Campbell government spends hundreds of millions on circuses like the Olympics while cutting back vital funding to a community of sick people who have always been badly underserved by the system.
This government started its mandate in 2001 by dumping Nancy Hall, the mental health advocate, because she was doing what she was mandated to do — find out where help for mentally people was most needed. Campbell & Co. didn’t want to know about those expensive sorts of people, so Hall was dumped.
The need to fight mental illness increases while this government flogs those least able to fight for their medical needs by decreasing what was already unsatisfactory help.
Let the games begin!
For comments, go to http://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2009/10/26/MairMentalIllnessCuts/.