Please Help Me: Fighting for Help in the Mental Health System
I’ve had a mental illness my whole life. I’ve also worked as both a student and registered music therapist in mental health support. And I’ve read far and wide, professionally, for self-help and other’s autobiographical/personal accounts of living with chronic mental illness and fighting for help. I’ve got friends with mental illness and their own experiences.
But nothing, nothing, prepared me for this.
My story begins:
I had my first “breakdown” or “crisis” about 10 weeks ago. I didn’t exactly see it coming, but I did know I was struggling more than usual. I was reaching out and asking for help. But I am very “high-functioning.” So when I asked, “Please help me,” everyone — including my psychologist — assured me I was fine. The heightened sensation of being overwhelmed would pass in time.
I woke one Sunday morning feeling so heavy and fatigued I could not move. I instinctively thought of my depression, I don’t know why. So I rang a helpline. And received very efficient reassurance, guided muscle relaxation and recommendation to cancel my day’s plans because my body was probably just exhausted.
So I canceled my plans, stayed in bed and waited. The feeling didn’t pass, and I also became nauseous and dizzy. I rang a nurse, who urged me to see a doctor in the next two hours. I rang the home visiting service, who advised at least a three-hour wait. Thinking of all the nurse said, and worried I was seriously physically ill, I rang the ambulance. “Please help me.” The person who answered assessed I was just having a depressive episode, and should try to get up and eat.
By the time the home doctor arrived about six hours later, I was not just seriously physically, but also clearly mentally ill. He took one look at me and urged my friend, who arrived at around the same time, to take me to the emergency room and demand a psychiatric assessment.
Sitting in emergency, lying on the bed, I whimpered to the nurse: “Please help me.” Hospital one left us waiting for hours, then sent me home without psychiatric assessment and only two Valium and recommendation to see my doctor. Next day, my doctor sent me straight to another hospital. I pleaded: “Please help me!” I did see a psychiatrist, after many more hours, but was assessed as unsuitable for admission, and sent home with a referral to a public support service.
Fortunately, my friend had already realized I was unfit to be alone, and had decided I would stay with her. Over the following days and weeks, she was my unofficial full-time carer. She monitored and assisted in all my ADLs, and did the best she could and everything she could think of to help me begin recovery.
The support service rang and occasionally visited, but this was brief and unreliable, with different people each time who generally either had no or completely inaccurate information about me. We begged: “Please help!” but received no meaningful advice, guidance or assistance. I was discharged quickly.
My doctor referred me to a psychiatrist, who did not even complete her assessment before deciding I was unsuitable for admission to the private clinic due to my inadequate level of insurance and living situation (now technically homeless), and also that I was “too complex” for her to take on as an outpatient (being actively suicidal). Oh, how I had cried: “Please help me.”
My doctor rang the support service back and insisted I be readmitted. She would not take no for an answer. The service reluctantly took me, but openly said at my first return visit they didn’t know what they could do for me.
But they did refer me to a public residential facility, where I have been for about three weeks of a maximum 28 days. I waited several days just to fill out my admission paperwork, and a week to be assigned a key worker. Some residents have been here longer and still haven’t had this done for them; some have given up and gone home. Many of us have deteriorated. But the promised programs to assist our recovery are nonexistent, and most staff only surface from the office to eat and smoke. We spend hours literally waiting for meetings and goal support that we are required to attend on set days, but that may not eventuate. We were asking and asking, “Please help me, please help me”… but we know now not to bother.
Why? Why have I asked, pleaded, begged for help from all these services and received little or nothing? Why am I not even the only one?
I think, from professional and now personal experience, there are many factors at play. A lot has been written about the sheer lack in funding and the inappropriate business focus that has lead to minimal resources, training and employment of simply inappropriate people. Calling the ambulance and other services that first day, visiting the two emergency departments and then pleading with the public support service, the message was clear: as long as you stated (truthfully or otherwise) that you were not actively planning or attempting suicide, you were not a priority. Constant suicidal ideation did not count. Perhaps this is one of their own coping strategies, as the need exponentially increases but they cannot provide. But in the facility I am currently staying, with empty rooms, there is a seemingly unexplainable almost lack of empathy and support. We have no idea what staff are being paid for.
Additionally, in both the public support and residential service, the recovery model has been referred to in what conversation we have had with staff. As a student therapist on placement at a psychiatric ward, I studied this and even presented on it at our national conference. I know and understand it well from a professional perspective. But I find in my new experience as a patient of the emergency wards, public support and residential services, that the recovery model is being used by staff as an excuse to put all responsibility onto me and at times even exclude my friend and carer from meetings and assessments. I can assure you, as independent as I want to be and as much as I do want to have a say in my recovery, even now that I am well enough to write this article, I am in no place to make the kinds of decisions about medication some have insisted on, nor completely plan and oversee my own recovery as is still the apparent expectation.
I don’t have any specific proposals to offer to fix this. But something needs to be done. Desperately. At the very least, we need to be employing understanding people with decent training even as support workers. We need to put more money and better infrastructure into mental health services.
Because us unwell and vulnerable people are not benefiting as we should. Some are deteriorating, many will relapse quickly because they were discharged too early and/or with insufficient follow up support. I fear others simply won’t survive.
Please. Help. Me.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.
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Thinkstock photo via YiuCheung