“That doctor may as well have put a loaded gun in my hand . . . and said ‘do what you have to do,” said Andrea Head-Lahey about her recent experience at the Cold Lake Health Care Centre emergency room.
Head-Lahey, who was diagnosed with clinical depression, went to the ER, hoping to get some help when she was at a low point with her illness. However, the doctor she saw was not sympathetic.
“He kept interrupting me,” Head-Lahey said in a public Facebook video that has been making it s way around Cold Lake.
“And if you’ve ever been in that kind of position, where you already feel like an idiot. You’re embarrassed. You don’t want to be there, admitting, hey, I don’t want to live anymore. And to have somebody be so abrasive with you, it makes you feel 10 times worse.”
Head-Lahey said the doctor told her to immediately stop taking the medication that her family nurse practitioner had prescribed her. Head-Lahey, however, was hesitant to follow the doctor’s advice since he wasn’t as familiar with her medical history as the nurse practitioner she sees regularly. (Like many residents of Cold Lake, Head-Lehay doesn’t have access to a family doctor so she sees a nurse practitioner instead).
When she questioned the doctor’s plan, she was told to call mental health on Tuesday. Head-Lahey had gone to the emergency room over the Labour Day long weekend and Mental Health Services at the Cold Lake Health Centre is only open during the week from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Mental Health Services not ideal
Jeff Bentley, a local mental health advocate, said the hours of the Mental Health Services should be extended to include weekends and evenings.
“But there is not enough staff. There are not enough doctors. There are no psychiatrists,” said Bentley, who has been lobbying the government at all levels to improve Cold Lake’s mental health care services.
Bentley said the location of Mental Health Services is also a problem.
“There is no privacy. It’s right off the main elevators on the second floor, so when you go to check in, someone you know might see you.”
Bentley who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in the first Gulf War, has had his own issues accessing Mental Health Services in Cold Lake.
He had been receiving counselling from a social worker at Mental Health Services and was able to manage his symptoms from the disorder with his counsellor’s help.
Bentley had gotten himself to the point where he only had to see her every six weeks.
“To me, that was like my security blanket,” said Bentley. “I could look in the calendar if I was having a rough time and be like: “Okay, I will be getting help on that date.”
But, out of the blue, a manager from Mental Health Services, based out of Bonnyville, reviewed Bentley’s file and decided Bentley was managing well enough on his own.
“I couldn’t see my counsellor anymore because someone who had never met me decided I couldn’t,” said Bentley. “It didn’t matter what my own councillor thought.”
Since then Bentley has been advocating that improvements be made to Cold Lake’s health services.
He received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for his work with veterans in the mental health field.
As for continuing to manage his own symptoms of PTSD, Bentley works with a psychiatrist in St. Paul and receives counselling support over the phone from another psychiatrist in Red Deer, which is less than ideal.
Although Bentley has been able to make due with what is available, he said there are others who are struggling. Over the last two years, Bentley has had two friends commit suicide.
Limited counselling services in Cold Lake
Out side of the Mental Health Services in Cold Lake, there are two private practice councillors available at Supporting Wellness Psychological and Family Services that operate out of the Family and Community Support Services building.
But some people, especially those with limited extended health benefits through an employer, find private practice fees prohibitively expensive, as they can be more than $150 per hour.
Military mental health screenings to come to Cold Lake
Because of the limited health services in Cold Lake, the Canadian military deems Cold Lake as semi-isolated.
In order to be posted to Cold Lake, military members and their families have to have their medical files reviewed for any serious issues that cannot be treated in Cold Lake. They also have to meet with a social worker to assess their mental health.
Depending on the family member’s mental health condition, the military member and his or her family may be denied a posting to Cold Lake because of the lack of mental health services within the city. Such a decision can be career limiting to the military member.
Mental health works not available for suicide prevention discussion
FCSS organized a candlelight vigil to remember those lost to suicide on Sept. 10.
This was done to mark World Suicide Prevention Day.
Most of the participants had lost someone to suicide, and one woman had tried committing suicide herself. As a result, she was clinically dead for 30 minutes before being revived.
Organizers wanted to have a mental health worker present to facilitate a supportive discussion with the participants following the vigil, because remembering a loved one to suicide can bring up intense feelings, but no one was available to facilitate that discussion.
Instead, participants were referred to a series of “Living through Grief ” workshops the FCSS was hosting later in the fall.
Head-Lahey said the service she received at the Cold Lake emergency room broke her.
“I cried,” said Head-Lahey. “(The doctor) said, I can’t help you, if you don’t want to help yourself.
“He pulled back the curtain, and I’m sitting on a bed, crying, feeling defeated and so embarrassed and he just walked away. It was a low point.”
Head-Lahey said she left the hospital in a bad state.
Her husband, who was sitting in his truck out in the parking lot waiting for her, wanted to drive her to another town so she could see a different doctor. But Head-Lahey didn’t want to go.
“This doctor planted the seed of doubt in my mind that I was over reacting and that no one could do anything for me.”
811 Health Link number offers help
Head-Lahey called Alberta’s 811 Health Link number instead and talked to a nurse.
“She listened and she was patient,” said Head-Lahey. “She got all of my information that I had tried to get out (to the doctor before).”
The nurse told Head-Lahey she was right in going to the emergency room and that she should go to another town’s hospital. But by the time Head-Lahey had gotten off the phone with the nurse she was feeling well enough again to go home.
“If I was diabetic and I would have said my insulin isn’t working, I would have been taken seriously (by the emergency room doctor),” said Head-Lahey. “He would have found a way to help me.”
Head-Lahey decided to make a Facebook video because she felt that her experience in the emergency room needed to be spoken about.
Since she posted the video, two weeks ago, it has received almost 7,000 views.
A tearful Head-Lahey tells viewers “If you ever feel like you need to reach out and you muster up the courage and the energy to reach out and say ‘I need help,’ please don’t be discouraged if you don’t get it on the first try.
Keep trying. Keep reaching because someone will care.”
Emergency room best practices
A suicide risk assessment requires nonjudgmental questioning by a health care professional to allow them to gain insight into a patient’s thoughts and feelings, according to “Suicide Assessment in Hospital Emergency Departments: Implications for Patient Satisfaction and Compliance,” an article published in Topics in Emergency Medicine journal.
Emergency room doctors need to consider a patient’s current suicidal thoughts and intentions, intensity of depressive systems, recent life stressors, any past suicide attempts or a family history of suicide and many other factors, says the article.
While Head-Lahey felt the doctor didn’t listen to her, he did prescribe advice similar to what most medical professionals would give.
If a patient doesn’t have suicidal intent, a doctor’s next step would be to evaluate for psychiatric disorders, prescribe medication and refer the patient to counselling, according to “Evaluation and Treatment of Patients with Suicidal Ideation,” an article in American Family Physician journal.
If a patient has clear suicidal intent, he or she will likely be hospitalized.
Bentley has made some headway with his political advocacy on mental health issues.
He was able t o connect with Alberta Health Services and he may be allowed to sit in on a soon-to-be-formed mental health advisory group.
He has also been working with local MLA Scott Cyr to get the attention of the provincial minister of health Sarah Hoffman.
Bentley has been collecting stories about people’s experiences with Cold Lake’s Mental Health Services.
“It can be good or bad experiences. We need to know what is working and what isn’t,” said Bentley.
Bentley forwarded Head-Lahey’s video to MLA Scott Cyr.
Kevin Nagoya, the chief administrative officer of theCity of Cold Lake, has also seen the video.
Catherine Garon, the site manager of the Cold Lake Healthcare Centre, said she couldn’t comment on the mental health services provided in Cold Lake.
She said resources are allocated by Alberta Health Services.