You may be at a point in life where you know that it’s time to seek help for your anxiety, depression, or other mental health concern that is creating distress in your life, but have no idea where to begin. There’s no clear road map of where to access services, what’s available, and who may be eligible to take certain programs. We often hear that there’s no help available for people wanting services, and while I fully agree that mental health services are poorly lacking, and we need a much more comprehensive plan to tackle this growing epidemic, I thought I would provide some of my insights and experiences of the mental health system that I have gained over the last 10 years. My hope is that this may help some of you.
1. Family Doctor – The best place to start a conversation around mental health can be with your family doctor. It’s useful to compose a list of what you have been feeling and experiencing for the last couple of months (sleep patterns, change in eating habits, irritability, weight fluctuations, thoughts of suicide, etc). In the beginning of my journey, I often would be so worked up going to the doctor, that I would present my list to him and let him ask me the probing questions.
Your family doctor may be quick to want to start you on medication, but he should also be discussing with you other treatments, such as therapy that will be beneficial. You have the right to ask to see a psychiatrist regarding your condition, much like you would want to see a heart specialist if you were experiencing problems with your heart.
Family doctors can do a referral to a psychiatrist for you, but the wait times can often be months. If you feel that you need to see someone sooner, speak to your doctor about the possibility of doing what’s called a rapid referral , which usually gets you in within a couple of weeks.
It’s important to be an advocate for yourself at this stage and recognize that a family doctor is not an expert in mental illness. He is a conduit to the professionals that are the experts and he should respect your desire to want to see a psychiatrist and red flags should be going off if he dismisses your concerns.
2. The Psychiatrists – Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have taken specialized training in studies of the mind and mental health disorders. They are able to prescribe drugs, request program treatments and hospitalize patients if needed. They have offices in hospitals and in clinics. Their services are covered by AHS and a referral from a doctor is usually required to see them. There are some exceptions that I know of:
- The U of A has an outpatient psychiatry program that runs Monday to Friday – you must be there at 8:00 am or 1:00 pm to see someone and it’s first come first serve. You will be seen by a psychiatrist that day with recommendations to your family doctor for follow up.
- The Children’s Mental Health Clinic at Northgate Mall has a walk in clinic for children needing to see a psychiatrist. Children are assessed and followed up if necessary and it’s done by self-referral.
- Edmonton Mental Health and Addiction at the 108 Street Building allows you to complete an intake application and be put on a wait list to see a psychiatrist at their clinic.
Most psychiatrists will do an assessment of your history and begin working with you to develop a treatment plan to manage your condition. This may include drug therapy, programs like group counselling or DBT/CBT, or referrals for individual counselling.
3. The Psychologists – Psychologists are trained professionals that help people work through the emotions, feelings, behaviours and thoughts that are often associated with having a mental illness. Some are doctors themselves, working out of the various hospital settings. Your psychiatrist may refer you to see a “clinical psychologist” for treatment and this cost is covered by AHS. These treatments are generally for a shorter term and are usually to address a specific and urgent crisis. Most psychologists have private practices. Many offer sliding fee schedules based on your income. If you have private medical insurance such as Blue Cross, you can claim a portion of your expenses back for therapy.
Psychology or counselling are wonderful tools to help you work through deep-rooted issues that may be impacting your present mental health. To find a good psychologists, ask for referrals from friends and family and from your psychiatrist.
You can research the Alberta College of Psychologists to see if there have been complaints and it’s also a good idea to search the Better Business Bureau for any bad reports. Don’t be afraid to “interview” a psychologist – after all, they are working for you! And if they don’t fit your criteria, move along. Trust me, there’s plenty of them to choose from.
4. Group Therapy – Group therapy is a great way (and affordable) to access therapy that allows you to meet others going through similar struggles and reduce the feelings of isolation. There are some formalized programs that require a referral from a psychiatrist, but there are also many informal programs being run throughout the city that offer many benefits. Finding them takes some diligence and creativity, but so does living with a mental illness and look how far you’ve come so far!
Momentum Walk in Counselling, located on Whyte Ave, offers a great deal of group therapy at no cost to those attending on a variety of topics. Groups such as PRIDE, City of Edmonton, The Wellness Network, CMHA Edmonton and Boyle Street Community Services may also be resources to investigate.
5. Peer Support – Reaching out to peers who have been walking the journey will be of great help to you. There’s a wonderful group called Anxiety and Depression on Facebook based in Edmonton that is comprised solely of peers supporting peers. Mental Health Matters Edmonton and EMHAC are also two organizations striving to promote peer support and bring people together to help reduce isolation and create stronger networks. The Wellness Network has peer navigators that will help guide you through systems as well.
6. The Programs
- Day Programs – The U of A, Royal Alex, Grey Nuns, and Misercordia all offer mental health day programs – referral from psychiatrist required
- Hospitalization – each hospital has the capacity for mental health beds. As a former patient, I’ve spent time at the Grey Nuns, U of A and Royal Alex. Each time I was admitted as an emergency patient and my average length of stay was 10-12 days. Hospitalization offered me the chance to stabilize and be safe, while feeling nurtured and free from outside pressures.
- Community Programs – There are some great community programs out there such as WRAP, CBT, Anger Management, Stress Management, Anger Management, etc. A word of caution – with the surge in mental health being in the public eye, there are a lot of “life coaches” out there now wanting to take your money. There are many great programs that are free of charge – it just takes a little digging and googling. If you come across someone offering you promises of “curing” your illness at a cost, I urge you to really research their credentials and background. Mental health isn’t something to be handled lightly and some people can cause more harm than good.
7. Financial – Being diagnosed with a mental illness can be devastating to a person’s financial wellbeing. Oftentimes we are left in a position of being unable to work while we are seeking treatment for our illness but there is help.
- Disability from your employer. If you have paid into short term or long term disability, mental illness is an illness like any other and a medical note deeming you unfit for work should meet the criteria for this program
- Medical EI – if you have accumulated enough weeks, you should be able to collect EI for up to 15 weeks while unable to work for medical reasons
- Alberta Supports – if you are unable to work for medical reasons and have no other source of income, you can apply to Alberta Works – Sickness benefits. You will need a medical note. You also will be eligible for a benefits card that will assist with prescription drugs, dental and ambulance if required.
- Canada Disability Tax Credit – you can apply for this credit and go back to when your symptoms first appeared or 10 years. You will need to have a doctor complete the application and most doctors charge a minimum of $50 to complete the form. Decisions can take up to 4 months and most are denied on first application. Appeals are recommended.
- AISH – if your illness is considered lifelong and chronic, you may want to begin the process of applying for AISH with the government of Alberta. This is a lengthy process and again, first applications are usually denied. Your condition must be considered lifelong, chronic and you have tried all the treatments available to you.
- Canada Disability Pension – if you have worked in the past, you may be eligible for your Canada Disability Pension. Applications are available online and you will need a doctor to complete his portion. Decisions take months and there may be requests for more information.
8. Supports – isolation is a big factor in living with mental illness. Often we feel ashamed of our illness, and that we are alone in our suffering. 1 in 5 Canadians will encounter a mental illness in their lifetime. Surround yourself with supports including:
- Family that empathize with your pain and suffering
- Friends that show compassion
- Professionals that help you to work towards recovery
- Peer support that will help sustain recovery
It can be overwhelming when you first realize that you are living with an illness of the mind. First know that you are not alone. There is hope and you will find others along the path that will help guide you.