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Vicky Mochama is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.

Bertram says he’ll call back; Lilac’s on the phone again, he tells me. I decide to make a cup of tea as I wait.

It’s always this way with Bertram. We’ve had a scheduled weekly phone call for years. I’m not even sure when it began, but talking to Bertram has been a permanent feature of my life, despite his wishes. He’s an unofficial mentor, of sorts.

“A mentor is someone who cares,” he often says. “And I absolutely do not care for your nonsense.” Then there is a short punchy monologue about my lack of interest in, churlish attitude toward, and contemptuous lack of military service.

Bertram, as far as I know, served briefly during peacetime, but he still never lets me off the hook – except, of course, when Lilac is calling. Then, it’s “Fine, fine, whatever. Some societies need scribes in the end, I guess.” Then, a dial tone.

The kettle finishes its boil when he calls me back. The usual non-greeting: “Bertram here. What’s the problem now?”

As I said, a mentor. Of sorts.

I tell him that I’m having an existential crisis.

“Christ, not you too!”

He tells me that Lilac called to ask to borrow more money. There’s been a fire at her emerging candle-making business.

“And so,” Bertram continues, “she needs Papa B here to loan her some money to tide the business over so that it may emerge once more, like a phoenix from the ashes. She’s in some kind of sorority with a phoenix logo, but all I ever hear emerging from them is gossip. Still, she said it was an existential crisis. So, I’m wondering what existence exactly are either of you in crisis about?”

I give him the general lay of things. First of all, everything’s bad. There are no more jobs in journalism, yet again. Even the free newspaper in my suburb went away, and toward the end, it was mostly advertisements for houses in soon-to-be subdivisions. “Who is going to sell the subdivisions now?” he mutters, but I can’t let him interrupt. Inside that question is a rant about the adult-living neighbourhood where he lived for three months before Lilac threw a raging party at the community pool that got him kicked out and ended at least one 40-year marriage.

I return his attention to my existential crisis. He stays quiet as I speed him through the lowlights. Really, I finish, I’m not over many of the things that have happened, I’m thoroughly despondent about the things that are going on, and I feel despair about things that may or may not unfold.

There is silence when I’m done.

“And you called me?” he finally says.

Well, I say feebly, it was in my calendar.

“Look, dear,” he says, “There are a lot of other people you can call for this sort of thing. Like, the genocide you mentioned? You never listen to me about the value of military service, so where do I even begin with that? But the other stuff, I really can’t help you with. Not really. There’s free therapy now, so you can always try that. I heard it on the radio, or was it the TV? The closed captioning mentioned a number, but now the text boxes are at the top of the screen. It’s driving me mad. I can’t see anyone’s eyes on Blue Bloods now.”

Twenty tense minutes of navigating his television’s menu options later, I remember to ask him: What free therapy?

“Oh yeah, they’ve launched a hotline for people who are having existing problems. You can fact-check that.”

In fact, I have to check. Days before, he’d e-mailed me an obituary for former U.S. Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor with the subject line: “Judge Judy Dead.” (Ed.: Judge Judy Sheindlin is still with us at the time of writing.)

Looking it up, I eventually figure out that he’s referring to the fact that the federal government has recently launched a three-digit suicide prevention hotline, 9-8-8.

Reading him off more of the article, I tell him that it’s not exactly free therapy.

“You call or text 9-8-8 and then it’s someone’s job to do what they can to stop you from dying, yeah? And then, no one charges you any money? Sounds like free therapy to me,” he says. “I mean, Lilac’s always telling me how vital her therapist is to her healing process, though they’re the ones who encouraged all the candle-making – yet I’m the one who has to pay for both therapy and replacing the burnt rugs. Honest to God, who puts rugs in a candle workshop?”

He’s off now about the overhead costs of the candle business, which gives me time to sip my tea and think. As usual, Bertram has been of absolutely no help. At a technical briefing last week, with representatives from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), I had already heard that the 9-8-8 hotline would be in service nationally as of Nov. 30. I knew a constellation of 39 organizations across the country were pulled in to inform the training that 9-8-8′s responders receive. Those responders, in both local communities as well as in the central hub from CAMH in Toronto, can call in emergency services if the person reaching out meets the criteria for being at immediate risk.

A phone call or text that allows a mental health responder to intervene and assist with a potential 911 emergency response is emblematic of the gaps in Canada’s mental health care approach so far.

At a fundraising event for CAMH’s women-focused initiative, Womenmind, at Toronto’s El Mocambo last month, some of the city’s fashionable and wealthy did what they do best: They went shopping. (When I told Bertram about it, he said, “Women. Now that I don’t mind,” and we ended up in a fight.)

Bertram is busy describing all the scented candles that Lilac sells (“Can a Lychee even have a Lilt?”) as I recall the woman who spoke rather bravely at the event to share that her diagnosis of postpartum depression had, over a decade-plus, developed into a treatment-resistant depression. She’d lived through two suicide attempts.

Like the launch of the 9-8-8 hotline, the El Mocambo event marked another contribution to mental-health policy in this country. Yet despite Bertram’s routinely unreliable claims, national mental-health care is not yet available, let alone free therapy.

I check back in with him. He is swearing and I hear a lot of scuffling. I have to yell a few times before he’s back on the phone.

“Sorry dear, I was looking for something. Anyway, you can call these government people and tell them your problems now. I have to get over to Lilac’s.”

I ask him why.

“Like I said, I can’t help you. I have a lot of money, always have had, and even I’m mad about the current economy. Sometimes, that’s how it goes. I have to get to the store. I’ll tell you what I told Lilac: If you don’t have a fire extinguisher, you should at least have marshmallows in the cupboard. Make sure you eat.”

Then, he’s gone again.

Taking the last sips of my tea, I realize I don’t know if Bertram’s going shopping for rugs or marshmallows. Then I laugh, and remember: Like national mental-health care, Bertram and Lilac (bless her heart) live only in my imagination.

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