World Mental Health Day is this weekend and as parents with children who have a mental health illness will know, finding adequate treatment is virtually impossible.
My family has been trying to find a definitive diagnosis and treatment for my child for the past two years. After two years of constant advocating, calling hotlines, speaking with the school, pediatrician, several child counselors, referrals to psychiatrists (those have their own very special waitlists), we are only now getting access to some answers. Ironically, only after a day surgery appointment were red flags noted by the Doctor which expedited the process. If it wasn’t for the Dr. that was working on a completely different issue, we would still be on waitlists that are now 24 months long.
If you have a child with an undiagnosed mental health issue, you know this battle. If you speak with the nurses, Dr.’s, social workers, and anyone in between, they know this battle. They know how excruciatingly difficult it is for families to get primary care or diagnosis, especially for children with complex cases.
As a parent what can you do?
Here are my suggestions (based on my experience, thus this list isn’t complete):
- Start with the school counselor. School counselors are an invaluable tool and ally! They’ll be able to help navigate some modifications (if needed) at school, check-in with the student during the school day, and be a soft landing spot. School counselors will have community contacts such as free counseling through the AHS or even access to funding if you need additional care for your child. If you don’t have a school counselor, social workers are also an absolute gold mine of information.
- Schools, in partnership with AHS, often host learning sessions with a focus on mental health. With COVID shutting many of these sessions down, look for online resources presented by the school or by AHS
- Alberta-wide mental health hotline from the AHS. This number will offer you immediate advice, and be able to provide you with resources that might be available while you wait for the Dr.’s appointments, diagnosis, or whatever you might need.
- Your family Dr. will be able to prescribe medication and refer you to see a psychiatrist – but be warned, the waitlist for child psychiatrists is LONG – even in an emergency situation.
- Be persistent, be loud, advocate, annoy people. Make sure you understand what is happening and why. This has been one of the most frustrating parts of our journey. The resources are there for you, BUT, you will be doing this alone until you are able to get the care and or diagnosis and the wait times alone are horrendous. This isn’t the fault of the Dr.’s – it’s the sheer number of children that need help vs. the number of practitioners. An added complication to the system and the process is the length of time it takes to treat mental illness – they’re not cured overnight which adds to the pressure on the system.
- Write to your MLA. Mental health IS health and it’s desperately underfunded. Twenty percent of children and youths in Alberta “…suffer from a diagnosable psychiatric disorder” (source) and these children need access to diagnosis and treatment while they’re still children and their brains are still developing. Delaying it means their illness is untreated into adulthood.
COVID and the stress from the last 7 months have exasperated, created new, or made worse many mental health challenges such as anxiety meaning an already strained system is about to be hit hard.
For World Mental Health Day – it’s important to bring awareness but it’s also a good time to ask for more facilities, more Dr.’s and better access to diagnostic testing.
Jeanie is a mother of 4 in Lethbridge, Alberta. She enjoys her job, hiking with the family, and avoiding making supper at all costs.