Worth Living Ambassador Jenna Fournier
Hello I’m Jenna, a psychology student at Carleton University. I like music, coffee shops, art, poetry, and I do weightlifting. I have been diagnosed with many things, most notably Borderline Personality Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Social Phobia.
When discussing mental health, we often hear the words “ you should get help” or “you are not alone.” Although when people say this, they probably have good intentions, what they don’t realize is how difficult it actually is to get said help. A story I heard today, actually inspired me to write this article. Now I had already intended to write an article about getting mental health help; however, this incident pushed me to write it as soon as possible. I heard a story about a teenage girl and her recent experiences with the mental health system in my city. I was so angered that she received no help and that her experiences very much mirrored mine. I had hoped that things had changed in recent years, but evidently they have not.
When I first started really struggling with my mental health, I went to my family doctor at the time and she referred me to a psychologist who was supposedly good with helping youth. Now this was my first time dealing with any kind of mental health professional and at the time, I trusted my doctor’s opinion. Why wouldn’t I? Professionals know best right? Wrong.
So I went for my first appointment with this psychologist. Her office was in an old house with a funny smell at the top of a staircase. I assumed her to be younger for some reason, most likely because I was told she was good with youth. In reality she was old, and I’m pretty sure she had a birds nest in her hair. She wasn’t helpful whatsoever.
Now I was 12 at the time, but she treated me as if I was perhaps 6 years old. She made me draw pictures and then tried to analyze them. Now my pictures had no hidden meanings- I was just drawing them because she told me to! So no my picture of a flower didn’t represent my unresolved childhood trauma, it was literally just a flower. She referred to my anxiety as “worry dragons” and decided that the death of my dog was at the root of my issues. She couldn’t have been further off track. I don’t remember how much longer I saw her, but it wasn’t for much.
The next psychologist I saw definitely fit the description of what I thought a therapist for young people should look like. Her office was large and bright and she was much younger than the previous one I saw. However she too was less than helpful. One of my tasks was to write a positive word for each letter of the alphabet. What is that supposed to achieve? Nothing. The answer is nothing.
I went back to my family doctor who referred me to a medical doctor who specialized in youth with mental health issues. Sounds promising right? It was quite the disaster. She kept prescribing me different medications and was constantly looking for some made up problem that she could attribute to how I was feeling. The medications she put me on just made me a lot worse and I eventually stopped seeing her.
My teen years were mostly a blur. During my youth I visited the hospital many times. Now if you tell someone you are experiencing severe mental health issues or feel suicidal they will most likely tell you to go to emergency services. Now maybe, to you reading this, that seems like an idea you would agree with. To me, it sounds like a terrible idea. If you hurt yourself and need medical attention then I think going to a hospital to tend to your physical injuries is important. I do not however think hospitals are well equipped to deal with mental ones. Now I can only speak for the hospitals I have visited in my city. I have visited hospitals many times. I have even stayed in one as an inpatient for three weeks. You would think that the mental health staff at a children’s hospital would be empathetic and well equipped to deal with mentally ill youth but you couldn’t be more wrong. I have dealt with many staff members and if you have ever seen the 1975 film One Flew over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Nurse Ratched isn’t that much of a stretch. I am not sure what possesses someone to enter a career where empathy and understanding are vital but the lack of caring for the mentally ill is prevalent amongst professionals.
Now if all the people telling young people to reach out and “get help” with their mental health issues actually were to find out what the “help” entails they may be shocked. So shall we begin?
If you go to a hospital for your mental health crisis you most likely will find yourself waiting there for well over a few hours. You may also be left sitting in a random hallway if you are lucky. The less lucky end up in rooms straight out of a horror movie. All alone in an empty room with writing on walls saying things like “get me out of here” and “help me.” Now maybe you think the people wrote those things because they were mentally unstable. But let me tell you, if you were in one of those rooms you would probably be doing the same thing. What also boggles my mind is the length of time they leave you alone. If you are feeling lonely entering the hospital you are probably going to feel at least 50% more lonely when you leave. Not only because they left you sitting somewhere for hours on end but also because of how you are treated once the “professional shows up.” You may think that you stepped into a police interrogation instead of a hospital. A very unfriendly staff member of an unknown profession (Are they a psychologist? a social worker? You’ll never know) will talk with you and probably not for long. They will ask you some questions and most likely none of them will be relevant. If you did hurt yourself or were planning to, they make you feel very guilty about it but it won’t lead you to a hospital stay like you may think. They will look for reasons as to why you are perfectly fine. I was once told I must not be suicidal because I was wearing earrings and had makeup on. I was also told it was just the teenage years and things would get better. After making you feel ten times worse, they may leave you with a page of community resources. They may not. And then you will leave tired and very hopeless. Stepping out into a world that looks even bleaker than it did before.
Now if you are lucky, and I am saying lucky with loaded sarcasm, you may possibly get admitted into the mental health unit. The staff will insist it is not a psych ward but a “mental health unit”. I see no difference. The doors into the unit are locked and there is something called a “quiet room” where people go for “quiet time”. You can put the pieces together. There is also no privacy and say goodbye to your sense of humanity. Now some may argue this is for safety, but believe me there are other ways to go about treating the mentally ill. There has been a long standing argument about mental health units or wards or whatever you want to call them. The treatment of the mentally ill has been long questioned. The push for outpatient services has become increasingly common. You would think a place you go to get better would be inviting, with bright paint, and I don’t know a plant perhaps? I felt very lonely during my hospital stay. Sleeping was hard for the first few nights but you eventually get used to the nurses shining flashlights into your eyes periodically. I felt the staff were condescending, unhelpful, and quite frankly power tripping. I understand there is a need for inpatient services but I do not believe they should be functioning the way they currently are.
Shortly after the hospital stay when I was fourteen, I got into the outpatient services at CHEO and was assigned a psychologist and psychiatrist. This was very lucky because it is almost impossible to get into the outpatient services at CHEO. The psychologist did not help very much and the psychiatrist was arrogant. The psychologist left for a private practice and I got a new one. She was the first mental health professional who ever truly helped me. I stayed with these services until I was 18. After you turn 18, you are left to fend for yourself. Again.
After a period of being in mental health help purgatory, I ended up getting into the ROYAL. I have heard many good things about the ROYAL. However, in my experience I have never received poorer mental health help. One psychiatrist I was assigned just disappeared. Yes, that’s right. Disappeared. I was assigned another psychiatrist who told me I did not “look like” my diagnosis. I walked out of that appointment and never went back. I remember leaving that appointment feeling at war with the world, and very alone.
Now hospitals are not the only place people go for mental health help. Often teens reach out to guidance counsellors or teachers at their school. I know at my high school mental health was kept on the down low. I did not receive much help at my school and the support system there was almost non- existent. One counsellor once told me that my problem was not forgiving the person who sexually assaulted me. I walked out of that session. Now if we back up to middle school, the support there was even worse. In fact there was no support. The staff members at both of the middle schools I had attended had no idea how to handle mental health issues. I ended up leaving one school because of bullying and my mental health problems. The staff had no clue how to deal with me and were relieved to see me go. At the next school, everything was much worse and towards the end of the semester a teacher told my mother that it would be best if I just stayed home from school. I did. In fact, I don’t think I ever returned. University isn’t too much better, and the mental health services aren’t very good. I have used them a few times but would not use them again nor recommend them.
Another issue I have, is with the police. They are very ill equipped to deal with the mentally ill. My experiences with them were quite terrifying. I was once in handcuffs for hours. How many hours I don’t recall but long enough that I doubt it was even legal. I was around fourteen at the time, so naturally I didn’t question the police that much. I now realize that I doubt they were allowed to do that, as I had not committed a crime. For more evidence of how the police treat the mentally ill, a quick google will suffice.
I have many more mental health “help” horror stories I could tell but I should mention some of the positive ones because it isn’t all doom and gloom. Just mostly. For some of ninth and tenth grade, I was in a hospital program for youth suffering from mental health issues. The program only had a handful of kids at a time and you received therapy, got to work on a few classes at a time, and even had field trips. It was honestly a very good program and helped me a great deal. I wish that program had more funding and other youth got the same opportunity I did. The Child and Youth Worker who worked there was a wonderful person. I also have seen a psychotherapist for a couple years who was a lovely person. He helped me grow and had what many other professionals lacked, which was empathy. Sadly he stopped practicing in Ottawa. I am currently therapy-less and trying to figure out my next course of action which as you can probably tell will be hard with the lack of services out there.
My journey of getting help has been a long and hard one. I see many flaws within the mental health system and it deeply saddens me that I see no changes. It should not be this hard for people to get help. I think one of the main issues is the lack of empathy and understanding. We can’t just continue to tell people to “get help” when there is none.
They say the people most likely to seek mental health help are white females. And if it’s this hard for me to get help or even attempt it, it bothers me beyond what words can express what it must be like for others. I know, as I type this there are people out there as lonely and helpless as I was.
One of my goals in life is to expose the mental health system for what it really is. There is a flaw at the very foundation of it. The only way to “fix” a system is to tear it down and rebuild it completely. I hope that one day this will happen. Until then, I want to share my experiences and let the truth be told on what getting help for your mental health is really like.
Now this story was probably not uplifting and there isn’t much of a happy ending. But the point of this story was not to be uplifting. I want the raw reality to set in. Next time someone is speaking about mental health or it’s Bell Let’s Talk day, take a moment to think about what help is really out there. What are people’s options? We need empathy and education. We need people to be able to take charge in their treatment. People centred treatment. More funding and accessible services. Let’s get talking and humanize mental health.