Navigating the Mental Health System

ashley-batz-1298-unsplashOur family has been both amazed and perplexed by the mental health system. Amazed by the volume of available services and resources, and at times perplexed by how to navigate them. It seems to be the experience of many people, that crisis gets service. However, what can you do when a diagnosis is suspected and/or emerging? Where can you go for screening, prevention and education? My suggestion… whether you are advocating for yourself or a loved one — start a log. Write down your observations, thoughts, feelings experiences, noting specific days and times. Think of it as detective work. Build a case. Search for clues. Solve the case. Survey family members, educators, anyone who is in your relational world that has a window into the behaviours you are trying to discern. Trust your gut and don’t stop searching for answers until you are satisfied. Start by bringing these concerns to your Doctor. Share any family history of mental illness. Query possible screening tools and begin the process of putting the puzzle pieces together in search for answers. This paperwork is often filled out by you and potentially some of the people you surveyed. Ultimately, just get started. If your GP is not knowledgeable in the matters you are presenting, ask for a referral to another Doctor or specialist: paediatrician (for children under the age of sixteen) psychologist, or psychiatrist for a thorough assessment. In my book, When Lightning Strikes Twice I talk about the importance of being patient and persistent, but mostly, persistent. Be prepared to wait, and sometimes even pay. A lot of services are covered under OHIP and or personal health benefits, but some are not. Public and private resources are available. Public services via school systems: in-board Psychologists, Child and Youth Workers, Social Worker, Counsellors. Canadian Mental Health Association has both adult and adolescent walk-in and follow up services including psychiatric care amongst counselling and other resources for the both individuals and families. Private services: via psychologists & counsellors. While of course these are not an exhaustive list, my hope is that they serve as a starting point for further exploration.

Education versus Experience. Which is the better teacher?

Since becoming a registered psychotherapist and published author with lived experience of mental illness, I have been asked which has been the better teacher, education or experience? If you haven’t caught on by now, my dualistic questions result in a dualistic response: both. Is it possible to have one without the other? Certainly yes. Does having both result in enhanced value: yes. Let me ask you this, if you were to have surgery, would you rather have a surgeon preform it who only has text book knowledge of how to preform the surgery?  Or, years of experience? Chances are you would want both, but if left with no other choice, you would likely pick the one with experience and who has a history of proven results. That being said, education and experience are not mutually exclusive. Both are necessary. Just like a surgeon would not have education without practical experience, so to do therapists & mental health professionals. What enhances our knowledge base is the years of personal, clinical and professional experiences that we develop. Education and experience have their value and meaning but are undefined until paths intersect. Wisdom is ultimately the result. The two must work together. How you do this in any practice is both an art and a science.  My book, When Lightning Strikes Twice is a collection of our family experiences journeying through the ups and downs of mental illness. It is our intention that others will find hope in the struggle. Wisdom is a gift meant to be shared with others so that we can all grow collectively. What are you doing to enhance your education and experience?

Help is a Phone Call Away…or is it?

When dealing with mental illness crisis, it is a comfort to know that help is a phone call away…or is it? Are they responsive to the help you need? I know the frustration of utilizing various help lines including 911 only to be disappointed with the help they have to offer. Is my expectation too high or are their resources too limited? Perhaps it is a bit of both. Are they still invaluable resources? Yes. They each serve a purpose, provide assistance and can save lives.

Let’s backtrack a minute. Let me give you a recent example. I have a 17 year old son who has bipolar disorder and is medicated and monitored regularly by a psychiatrist. Against all odds, his disorder reared its ugly head temporarily overtaking parts of his body or at the least his mind. In short, he was inconsolable, unpredictable and increasingly aggressive. First attempt at hospitalization was denied-not bad enough, second attempt, call 911- a home visit by the police but ultimately not their problem (a referral was made to the IMPACT team who evidently do not work on statutory holidays). Third attempt, four days later, a phone call to a help line that wasn’t helpful at all.   I ended up taking matters into my own hands, and hospitalization followed.  I know myself and my child and what was needed at that time. Sometimes we need to follow our gut and not take no for an answer. It can be really hard to keep your cool when you feel frantic and your child certainly is. It is important to stay composed in order to take charge, take action and be your child’s best advocate. When at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

So what happened next? My son was admitted to the General Hospital and 12 hours later transferred to the Child and Adolescent Inpatient Program (CAIP) a children’s psych ward.

Mentally Ill & in Good Mental Health

Mentally ill and in good mental health may sound like an oxymoron, but its not. Think about it, just as it’s possible to have poor mental health but no mental illness, it’s entirely possible to have good mental health even with a diagnosis of mental illness. Mental health exists on a continuum. Everyone has good and bad days. What’s important is how we handle them.

Good mental health applies to us all. It is about our ability to take care of ourselves emotionally, physically, mentally and relationally no matter what kind of day we are having. It’s about managing our daily stressors and keeping them in perspective. Mental illness on the other hand affects a fraction of the population- stats reveal one in five people. There are many different illnesses, and they have different symptoms that impact people’s lives in different ways. For example, when you have met one person with bipolar disorder you have met one person with bipolar disorder.

The practice of good mental health requires us all to tend to our changing needs. This will call for different actions at different times. Perhaps going for a run or listening to your favourite music playlist or both, will provide a mood boost. Other actions may include, retreating from or engaging with others, taking medication regularly if that is what is required, and not to mention taking care of the basics like diet, sleep and exercise.

So, no matter where you are on the spectrum of mental health, know you are not alone. There is so much that can be done to optimize your well being. Know your limits and live within them.