Mental illness needs to be caught early in young people to prevent suffering

Tamara was 12 when first diagnosed with schizophrenia: What followed was a long journey for help

Tamara was 12 when she was first diagnosed with schizophrenia.

What followed was a long journey to find help, particularly when the medication she was initially prescribed had the side-effect of causing her seizures.

After telling her story in repetitive frustration over and over to get help, she finally discovered through the Kelowna branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association a support group of her peers to dialogue about her issues and find therapeutic ways free of medication to deal with her mental illness.

At the age of 24, she is in a good place in her life, having survived the journey to find the help and support she needed.

For the Phil family, the reality having their nine-year-old son diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder was initially difficult to explain to themselves and their community.

As a parent, Jody had to become an advocate for her son, pushing through the red tape of the provincial medical care system over a two-year period to find the help her son needed.

Both of these young people would have received the help and support they needed much quicker and more efficiently under the operating formula for a new integrated mental health youth services centre for Kelowna expected to open by May 2017.

Premier Christy Clark was at the Interior Health administrative facility on Kirschner Road in Kelowna on Monday to formerly announce that Kelowna was one of five sites chosen for the mental health services centre pilot projects, to be called Foundry Kelowna.

The name ‘foundry’ is derived from providing a place for youth to forge new connections and abilities while receiving the help or treatment they need to deal with their mental health issues, providing direct one-stop access to 24 different service agencies.

The other sites will be located in the North Shore of the Lower Mainland, Prince George, Campbell River and Abbotsford.

The centres will offer immediate access to core services such as primary care, mental health and substance abuse, youth and family navigation supports, housing, supported employment, income assistance and education support.

Twenty-five communities across B.C. initially expressed an interest in being a mental health services site, that was shortlisted to 13, and utlimately Kelowna, Kamloops and Penticton were the finalists for southern B.C.

The Kelowna General Hospital Foundation also announced last week a $2 million fundraising campaign in support of the new centre, the first time the foundation has thrown its fundraising resources behind a health care project outside of the KGH walls.

“It is a big deal for them to make this commitment, but it also illustrates they realize how taxing it is on the hospital’s resources to be confronted by patients with mental health issues and have nowhere to send them to get the help they need,” said Shelagh Turner, executive director of the CMHA Kelowna branch.

One of the frustrations for parents and youth dealing with mental illness is they get bumped from agency to agency, constantly having to retell their story while sinking deeper into the health care system bureaucracy.

“Mental illness is kind of the last taboo when it comes to dealing with health issues,” said Sean Phil, a Kelowna lawyer and a past president of the Kelowna branch of the CMHA.

“If you are faced with diabetes or just about any other health issue, there are steps to follow to get support or treatment.

There is not a stigma about getting medication or perhaps counselling to deal with those issues.

“But when it comes to mental illness, we don’t even like the feeling of the word, we tend to use terms like being depressed, or feeling anxious. But this mental health service centre will help put a focus on mental health issues and confront them head-on, and to help us start to get rid of the stigma attached to it.”

The premier touched on the stigma issue in her address Monday, saying early intervention and support of youth with mental health issues will help them to lead healthy and productive lives, and potentially save millions of dollars in health care and other social service related costs.

“It’s important to understand that addiction, homelessness and mental health are all inextricably linked,” Clark said.

Clark said the ministry of health committed $3 million to the InnerChange Foundation in March 2015 to create the youth services centres, and the centres are also financially supported by the Graham Boeckh Foundation, InnerChange and St. Paul’s Foundation.

In Kelowna, that support means an operating budget of $500,000 a year for the first three years for Foundry Kelowna, taking up about 6,700 sq.ft. of space at an Interior Health administrative building, made available with the new downtown centre opening and relocation of the IH staff.

Feedback from CMHA clients indicated that Foundry Kelowna needed to be located close to a transit hub, a central place and away from either downtown Kelowna or Rutland.

The one-stop mental health services concept is something that Jody Phil says would have saved a lot of frustration for her son and their family, and likely gotten the medical support help their son Finnegan needed sooner.

Jody, like her husband a past president of Kelowna CMHA branch, said even that association didn’t prepare them for the two-year process of fighting for their son, telling his story over and over with each new referral.

“Mental illness is a health issue you want to catch early on and give our youth the tools to deal with it, whether it be medication or life coping strategies, before their affliction reaches an acute stage.

“That is a much better solution for the families, for the children directly affected and economically as well,” she said.

The province currently spends about $1.4 billion annually on mental health and substance use services.

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