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SERIES: B.C. residents speak out about their trauma in hopes of saving others

Special Report: People who have gone through a mental health emergency are echoing calls for change and share what has helped them.

This is the final story in a three-part special report. In this story, people who've experienced a mental health crisis share what saved their lives and what would have helped. 

WARNING: This article includes details of mental distress and suicide that may be difficult for some readers.

PART ONE: Police spend 3,078 hours waiting at two B.C. hospitals, not responding to calls

PART TWO: Experts say current system dealing with mental health patients 'unsustainable'

Looking back on the past three decades brings up painful memories and feelings of isolation for one Victoria woman.

Lisa, who asked to just be identified by her first name, has agreed to share her difficult and long journey of finding mental health support.

She sits with a handwritten note clasped in her hands at a picnic table. The 60-year-old woman has prepared notes and is nervous to share her story, but is doing so to help other people who may be suffering.

“It was traumatizing, degrading, intimidating, frightening,” she says.

That’s how she describes her experiences with Royal Jubilee Hospital’s psychiatric emergency services (PES). Over the past 30 years, she’s been to PES more than seven times. 

A doctor gave her a diagnosis and at first, she was relieved.

“It’s like, ‘Oh there’s a name for this, great,’” she says. “I trusted the doctors I gave them my full trust. I would never do that again.”

Lisa says instead of it helping her, it gave her a label.

“From there, I can’t get rid of that label... and it put me on a medley of medication up until two years ago,” she says. “There was no assistance for dealing with the emotions or what was happening. It was, ‘Take this pill, take this pill.’”

During one visit to PES, Lisa says she waited for more than seven hours and met with multiple psychiatrists, explaining over and over again how she was feeling.

"They kept sending in doctors wanting me to tell my story and it was very frustrating," she recalls. "I got 10 minutes with each and each one wanted my story and then they go into a conference room and discuss their take on me.”

Instead of help, she says they handed her a ‘survival guide of Victoria’ and discharged her. 

“I had no bus fare to get home,” she says, noting it was raining and she was alone.

“For a split second, a bus came by and I almost stepped out in front of it because I was struggling.”

'I HAD TO LEARN HOW TO TALK AGAIN'

Another Victoria resident, Joseph Briante, also felt turned away from PES and left with very little supports. 

“The very acute experience I had in an acute crisis was dreadful was a really poorly managed intervention,” he tells Glacier Media. “I think just being left hanging there was no answer. My parents had to be the crisis intervention and they had no idea how to handle it.”

His experience happened in 2007, and now at 46 years old, he says he’s still navigating his mental health journey. 

“It can get better. It’s never going to be an easy fix. It’s something that you have to navigate constantly,” he says. “There’s not a lot of stories of people arriving at the other shore.”

Briante went to PES after becoming delusional and paranoid. He says he was discharged without seeing the on-call psychiatrist. 

“It wasn’t normal, but at the same time, it was because the delusional thinking was so real,” he says of being in a psychotic state. “I was not able to recognize or have any self-awareness.” 

In the days that followed, he slashed and stabbed himself in the neck and arm with a knife, which resulted in severe blood loss and cognitive impairment.

“I had to learn how to talk again,” he says. “I kind of had the worst outcome other than actually dying.”

Right away, Briante says support and “resources” were available. 

“Someone got really gravely injured and almost died and then all of a sudden all the resources are there.” 

Briante and his mother, Carol, filed a malpractice suit alleging that a nurse and doctor who saw him Oct. 29, 2007, failed in their psychiatric assessment and treatment of him.

In 2014, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Keith Bracken ruled the responding medical team and Island Health breached the standard of care expected at PES but cannot be blamed for his life-altering suicide attempt. 

At the time, the health authority said it was sobered by the judge’s insights.

Kelly Reid, Island Health’s director of mental health and addiction services said back in 2014, in retrospect, that it’s clear that psychiatric services should have been made available to the family.

“They absolutely should have seen a psychiatrist.”

In a recent statement to Glacier Media, Island Health says its current focus is on continuing to improve access to vital services and supports.

FINDING SUPPORT ON THEIR OWN

Briante attributes his health now to his family and friends.

“I think the support of my family, that they didn’t give up on me, and my support system. [I] also had some really good practitioners and physicians,” he says. 

Briante says having more supports before he was in crisis would have helped. 

For Lisa, it wasn’t until a police officer guided her to the Esquimalt Neighbourhood House after she suffered trauma did she get the help that worked for her. Lisa says she now is on very little medication and has taken it upon herself to deepen her understanding of trauma. 

“I am able to pinpoint when I start to get overwhelmed or if I am overreacting. I am able to stop right away and be able to trace back; this is too much emotion for this situation, so where is it coming from? And then sit with the emotion and be able to go back to the root and then I can heal the root.”

In her experience, reading and learning about trauma has helped her and she thinks this would be valuable for people working in mental health. 

“What’s needed is trauma-informed care with nurses, doctors, police, everybody. They need to know about trauma,” she says.

ELIMINATING CRISIS TRIPS TO THE HOSPITAL

A University of Victoria professor, who was asked to review a current mental health program, believes a multidisciplinary approach is the way forward. 

The Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) program, by Island Health, is currently assisting more than 350 people with their recovery. 

“The team is mostly made up of nurses, addiction specialists, psychiatrists, mental health workers, peer support workers. And in Victoria, until recently, there’s been three dedicated police officers from Victoria Police who have been part of the teams,” says Dr. Catherine Costigan.

Dedicated police officers not in their uniform work on the ACT team, who help prevent crises before they happen. 

“It doesn’t eliminate, but it can make lower the need to take people to the hospital in the first place,” she says. “Having an officer who is known and familiar can help prevent it from escalating.”

Costigan has conducted countless interviews to review the program and says it demonstrates good use of police collaborating with a mental health program. 

“There are strong and reasonable ideological perspectives that police and law enforcement should not be involved with mental health and that being involved sends the message that people with mental illness are dangerous or criminals,” she says. 

Having officers on the team allows people to have stability, helps them keep their housing and prevents crises, Costigan continues. 

“They come to understand mental health. The mental health folks on the team come to learn the law enforcement needs and requirements, and when there is just better mutual understanding, things run more smoothly for the clients,” she says.

Budget restrictions have forced two Victoria police officers from the ACT team to leave and go back to regular police duties. 

“Mental health, in general, is severely underfunded and the options and opportunities for people struggling with their mental health is so limited and so hard to access,” says Costigan. “If we had the ability to create many more additional structures, that would help.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health and needs support, call the health support line at 310-6789 to be connected to the Crisis Line Association of BC. 

With files from the Times Colonist