Sask. parents say change needed to support adults living with mental illness and addiction

A teeter-totter. A game of pinball. Catch and release fishing.

The analogies used by three Saskatchewan parents – all of whom have adult children with complex mental illness and addiction – are different, but they all describe turbulent journeys through the health care and judicial systems that are supposed to offer help and protection.

The parents say systemic failures preceded incarceration and death – tragedies they say could have been prevented, had the systems helped their children.

Now the parents are working together to call for change.

“When I come to [politicians] as a concerned citizen of our country, of this province, I’m not given the time of day, and so parents are banding together, “said Pam Sanderson, who lives in Regina.

Sanderson and another Saskatchewan mom, Angela Erickson, have started a support group called Time to Heal: Families United Through Mental Health and Addictions.

“What we’re doing is hoping to create an organization for those that are suffering with mental health and addictions, and also for the families,” Sanderson said.

She said trying to help a loved one navigate the system can be exhausting and traumatizing for families.

“[My son] has been my full-time job for 10 years, more than full-time. I work morning, noon and night for him, “she said.

Her son Keith has struggled with severe mental illness and addictions for years, but hasn’t received the help he needs to become stable. She said he teeters between incarceration and medical facilities, most often in BC

“I had to send my son back to British Columbia because there are absolutely no services here.… I had him in the hospital for three months here, and then once he was released, he was back on the street and he was like, he was a real danger for him[self]”she said.

“He’s back in jail, and [that’s] not a place for him to be at all because once he’s there, his mental health really declines. “

Catch and release

Erickson, the co-creator of the group, similarly said her son has never received the long-term treatment needed to stabilize his severe mental illness in his adult life.

Last month, Erickson’s 29-year-old son Colton was arrested and charged with burning down several buildings and his family home near Alida, Sask. His family di lui believes the tragedy could have been prevented and are calling for change.

Less than 48 hours before the fires, Colton’s family called the police to apprehend him because he was threatening his family in an apparent psychotic breakdown. The police took Colton into custody under the Mental Health Services Act and transferred him to the local hospital, but the hospital released Colton back into the community just hours later.

The Ericksons say this was the latest example of a health-care worker letting Colton walk away when his family believed he should be held for assessment and treatment. Angela says Colton’s experiences with the judicial and health-care systems in Western Canada can only be described as “catch and release.”

Carey Rigby-Wilcox says her adult son Steven Rigby’s experience was like a game of pinball, where he was chaotically bounced around from service to service.

She said her son went to the hospital after one of his most severe suicide attempts and was released within 45 minutes, with no follow up plans.

Her voice becomes raw when she questions “why, why, why.”

Rigby-Wilcox said her son was not able to access timely or appropriate care before he died in 2018 at the age of 27. He was killed in an altercation with Saskatoon police officers, in what’s been described as “suicide-by-cop.” Rigby had been committed to a mental health facility in Saskatoon two days before the shooting, but then was quickly discharged.

Angela and Clayton Erickson say the health care and judicial systems in Western Canada have failed their mentally ill adult son. (Matt Howard / CBC)

She said that since her son’s death, she’s been busy answering messages and calls from other parents who can’t figure out how to get their children help.

Rigby-Wilcox said this outreach coming to her – not a professional, but a mother still grieving the death of her child – demonstrates the system is failing.

“I feel I don’t know really how to help because I feel like there’s no direction to send them, because nothing has changed in three years since my son has died,” she said.

She said her son’s mental illness was often dismissed or overlooked because of his addiction.

Angela Erickson said her son had similar encounters, including last month. She said she was terrified when she learned the local doctor had released her son from the hospital just after his apparent psychotic episode in which he threatened her life di lei.

She said she told the hospital he had a history of episodes and his mental state had been severely deteriorating, but they’d been unable to access a timely appointment with a psychiatrist. She wanted him held for psychiatric assessment, but she said the doctor brushed off his behavior as being possibly related to crystal meth.

Families of adult children left in dark

Rigby-Wilcox said she speaks out about her son’s story to try to create change and save another family from enduring the pain of losing a child.

But she said it was impossible to speak out for her son while he was still alive.

“As parents, we were just left in the dark. They go in with him, they close the door, they don’t tell us what’s going on,” she said.

Rigby-Wilcox said that even though her son wanted his parents involved in his care, they were denied access because he was an adult. She said it was heartbreaking to be shut out.

“As a parent I don’t care if he’s 27 years old, he’s still my baby.”

Rigby-Wilcox said that when she tried to tell health-care workers about the severity of her son’s condition, they didn’t believe her.

She remembers one of his final breakdowns.

“Our first instinct, to get help for our son, was to video-tape him in this crisis.… He could have killed himself right there and I’m worried about getting a video so I can take it back to [the hospital] and say here is your evidence, he does need help, don’t let him out, “she said.” They just wanted proof, proof, proof. And it wasn’t good enough. There wasn’t enough. I don’t know why they wouldn’t validate us as parents. ”

Carey Rigby-Wilcox, Steven Rigby’s mother, says he never got the help he needed. (Carey Rigby-Wilcox)

Angela Erickson experienced similar frustrations. She said she was unable to access her son’s records after he became an adult and then was not taken seriously when describing the severity of his symptoms di lui to health or judicial workers. She, too, felt the need to record her son’s violent episode di lei in March.

Colton’s family wants the system to better balance an adult’s rights with their family’s insight into their mental illness.

“I understand judges and doctors – they don’t want mental health to be used as a weapon. I get that, but you have to look at each individual situation, and if you sat down with anybody from the family, you would know that it was coming from a place of love, “said Angela’s sister Amanda Townsend, who also tried to help Colton get help.

Townsend felt the helplessness firsthand when courts and hospitals repeatedly released her mentally ill nephew without a treatment plan.

“Listen to the blinkin ‘family,” she urged.

Calls for more resources

The families say there needs to be more resources in Saskatchewan to help adults living with complicated mental illness. Furthermore, they say mental illness should not be ignored just because someone has an addiction.

There are staffing shortages throughout the system, preventing timely access to inpatient and outpatient mental illness care. A spokesperson for the Saskatchewan Health Authority has told CBC that recruitment efforts are underway to address staffing shortages.

On the addictions front, Sanderson said 28-day treatment programs should be expanded to 90 days minimum. She said there’s also not enough outreach care to keep people stable once they are released from facilities or treatment centers.

WATCH | Sask. families say province’s mental health-care system failed them:

Sask. families say province’s mental health-care system failed them

WARNING: This video contains distressing details | As Saskatchewan grapples with serious staffing shortages across its mental health facilities, at least two families are pleading for more resources to keep their sons – and others – safe. 8:12

Sanderson said the government should direct money toward treatment and housing programs specifically for people with complex mental illness needs, and support staff to work there. She believes this could curb the crisis of adults being bounced around between various systems and services.

“[My son] is extremely institutionalized, and I would really like to see him have some quality of life because for the last 10 years, he has had no quality of life. “

Sanderson encouraged other parents who feel alone in their struggle of trying to help their own adult children to reach out to their new group online. She is also organizing a rally to raise awareness for later this year.

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