Victoria couple issues a cry for help

Kelly and Owen Bradley are calling on the government to bridge a youth mental health services gap in Greater Victoria

Kelly and Owen Bradley stand on the steps of their Fernwood home. The couple has been pleading with the province and Vancouver Island Health Authority to address what they call a gap in mental health care for their 11-year-old daughter. Their online petition at change.org

The parents of a child with a mental health disorder are pleading with the province to recognize a gap in critical care.

Owen and Kelly Bradley’s 11-year-old daughter – who they asked not be named – has bipolar disorder, an illness marked by mood swings that sometimes lead to violence. She was nine when she received the diagnosis.

On Jan. 2, her behaviour become so erratic that police took her to Victoria General Hospital under the Mental Health Act. She spent four days there in a safe room.

“The crisis team can come to your house, but if a person is violent toward herself, they tell you to call 911 and take her to the hospital,” Kelly says, sitting in the living room of their Fernwood home.

The Bradleys asked for help, knowing their daughter was in need of serious psychiatric and medical support.

Doctors called Jack Ledger House, a 13-bed children’s mental health facility in Saanich that serves all of Vancouver Island. But a weeks-long wait list meant the Bradleys had to bring their daughter home.

Since then, the girl’s behaviour has landed her back in VGH on two other occasions. Doctors had no choice but to discharge her again after they ruled out physical symptoms. “As soon as they get the results back (from brain scans), they discharge her because it’s a mental health issue,” Kelly says.

To shed light on this gap in care, the Bradleys created an online petition that calls on B.C. Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid to fund acute crisis beds for children, staffed with dedicated child psychiatrists and specially trained nurses.

It’s a tall order, but the couple says too many families are suffering in silence. Since starting the petition, families “from all over B.C.” have contacted them with similar complaints of a gaping hole in the system.

The decision to speak publicly about a child’s struggle with mental health doesn’t come easy.

“These families deal with stigma. So do the patients, and the care providers and child psychiatrists,” says Dr. Clare Wood, a child psychiatrist with the Vancouver Island Health Authority.

Wood asserts child and adolescent psychiatry and children’s health is under-serviced, a problem she says has worsened over her 15 years of working with Island families. “We don’t have an inpatient acute crisis program. We need one that’s funded and staffed, including child and adolescent psychiatry. The space at Victoria General Hospital is inadequate for this purpose.”

Wood’s job is made more difficult by the fact children’s mental health and psychiatric services are spread between the Ministry of Children and Family Development and the Ministry of Health.

The result is a lack of co-ordination and fragmented service delivery, she says.

“Overall, it’s very, very frustrating to see what our patients and their families go through.”

The umbrella of the Ministry of Children and Family Development covers community-based care for B.C. residents under 19 with mental health challenges, and provides forensic psychiatric services for youth who have become involved with the law.

The ministry also oversees the Maples Adolescent Treatment Centre in Burnaby  – which provides psychiatric care for troubled youth.

The Ministry of Health retains overall responsibility for acute mental health services on the Island, such as Ledger House, while programs are run by VIHA.

“I have the utmost compassion and respect for the challenges families in this situation face every day,” said VIHA spokesperson Sarah Plank.

The health authority is taking measurable steps to meet increased demand for mental health services, she said, including the recent addition of a full-time mental health clinician on VGH’s pediatrics unit.

The hospital also has a a crisis co-ordinator and a child psychiatrist, and staff are in the process of expanding the hours of trained crisis nurses in the emergency room, Plank said.

Part of VIHA’s solution to acute care is tts 24-hour crisis line and integrated mobile crisis response team. The team sees mental health clinicians, social workers, a nurse and plainclothes police officers combine to respond to children and families needing on-site services.

But the reality for the Bradleys –they have five other adopted children between the ages of two and 19 – is that they are largely left to fend for themselves.

“We called the crisis line,” Kelly said. “All but once, they’ve told us to call 911, because they could hear our daughter in the background.”

The couple hopes the province will approve them for respite funding and allow them to hire a part-time care aid beyond the eight hours a week they now receive.

But the administrative hoops they jump through for each application and reassessment feels endless.

“They only release funding for a three- to six-month period,” Owen said.

In a report released Jan. 17, B.C. auditor general John Doyle revealed the province spent about $915 million on mental health and addictions last year, around six per cent of its $15-billion budget.

Those large numbers don’t mean much to the Bradleys. While their daughter was finally admitted to Ledger House on Monday after a 19-day wait, the problem isn’t going away.

“You pay it up front now, or society is going to pay for it later,” Kelly said.

No family wants to send their child to care … We don’t want people to feel like they’re alone or that they have to hide from the world because their child (has)a mental health issue.”

To read the Bradleys petition, visit chn.ge/UW54k5.

dpalmer@vicnews.com

By the numbers

• The Vancouver Island Health Authority’s budget for mental health and addictions jumped from $108 million in 2010-11, to $143 million last year, or about 7.7 per cent of its total budget.

• Fraser Health Authority spent five per cent of its budget on mental health and addictions; the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority spent nine per cent.

Source: B.C. Auditor General report

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