We are a group of seven parents from Toronto who met due to our children's battles with serious mental illnesses and our unsuccessful journeys to find proper medical treatment in Ontario.
Their mental illnesses include bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Our own statistics are startling and grim. Within our group of seven children and young adults, 100 per cent experienced persistent suicidal thoughts, more than 80 per cent harmed themselves, all had repeated hospitalizations (more than 40 in total), six of seven attempted suicide (more than 30 attempts in total) and tragically, two have died by suicide.
We did not know each other before our desperate searches to find proper medical treatment brought us together. Each of us experienced immense frustration navigating the fragmented and confusing Ontario health-care system. We quickly realized that mental illness had a devastating effect on our children and our families and that the Ontario health-care system did not offer the specialized residential treatment our children needed.
All of our children suffered from feelings of despair, hopelessness, anger, depression, anxiety, sadness, emotional dysregulation, destructive behaviour, unstable relationships, impulsivity, abandonment, aggression and withdrawal from daily life. They have great difficulty in functioning "normally" – holding down jobs, completing studies, properly caring for their personal hygiene or even getting out of bed.
We all experienced failed outpatient treatment and medication trials, multiple hospitalizations and therapists, frequent trips to clinics, shortages of psychiatrists, therapists and treatment programs, long wait times, age restrictions and, ultimately, refusal by our children to take medications or to engage in therapy. Despite our tireless efforts to find help, our children's mental disorders often got worse as the shame, guilt and disbelief mounted. And that is when the dark thoughts of suicide and self-harm start to set in. No parent should ever have to hear their child say they don't want to live any more or they want to kill themselves.
The current response of the Ontario government to mental illness is a "triage approach," which is little more than taking the blade out of their hand, pumping their stomach or treating their immediate physical wounds. Essentially, crisis emergency-room visits followed, perhaps, by a brief visit to a psychiatric ward with no meaningful treatment.
Each of our children's psychiatrists told us that Ontario doesn't offer the specialized residential treatment that they needed. Consequently, six of us had no choice but to seek treatment in the United States. Tragically, one of the seven children died by suicide as the parent desperately sought, but couldn't find, treatment in Ontario. Those who sent their children to the United States borrowed money and sold assets in order to afford treatment.
A number of us applied to OHIP's Out-of-Country Funding Program (OCF) for financial assistance, but were confronted by a battery of intimidating lawyers, staff and "medical experts" who always denied our claims even though our children were very sick, suicidal and without any available treatment in Ontario. The OCF is very outdated and doesn't accommodate complex mental illnesses with attendant suicidal risk, and is in serious need of immediate review and overhaul to save lives.
The Ontario government must invest in:
- Early detection and prevention programs;
- More psychiatrists and health-care professionals;
- Specialized residential treatment programs;
- Post-residential treatment programs;
- Support for families;
- Navigation tools to help match people with available treatments
- Public awareness in schools, the work place and the community.
Until these corrective measures are implemented, we urge the Ontario government to examine the OCF so proper "safety valves" exist to facilitate timely access to specialized residential treatment outside of Ontario, because failure to do so will result in more children and young adults taking their lives. The OCF for mental illness has been systematically cut back from 16 to only three U.S. facilities in just over three years.
This is our cry for help and call to action to the government of Ontario. Our children matter and they must not be forgotten by what is supposed to be a universal health-care system.