Marian Goldstone remembers a time when everything was hopeless.
“I didn’t realize how much it creeped up on me,” said Brandon, Man. said the resident.
Goldstone was in her early 40s when she began experiencing symptoms of mental illness. For 11 years, Goldstone was unable to work or participate in daily life with her family.
“I had a hard time keeping things organized,” she said. “I started to isolate myself socially. I even had trouble keeping clean.”
Marian Goldstone works with the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba to help people living with mental health issues like herself.
She asked for help 20 years ago. Goldstone saw a psychiatrist who eventually prescribed medication to help her on a healthier path.
“I can honestly say that if it weren’t for that very regular contact with that psychiatrist, I wouldn’t be standing before you today as a functioning human being… maybe I wouldn’t be standing before you at all. I didn’t wait very long, maybe a month, maybe six weeks,” she said. “There’s just not a place for many people to go now.”
Goldstone now works for the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba (MDAM) and hears firsthand how Manitobans, especially in rural areas, struggle to get the help they need.
Manitobans who need professional mental health care can face long waits. Depending on the severity of symptoms and medical area, some patients may wait up to two years before seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist through the public system.
This is partly due to a lack of staff. In a statement to Global News, Shared Health said it recently hired 17 new psychologists and six new psychiatrists. But in September 2023, 22 percent of psychologist positions are still unfilled, as are 21 percent of psychiatrist positions.
“Waiting lists were long before the pandemic, and they just got worse,” said Dr. Karen Dyck, Executive Director of the Manitoba Psychological Society (MPS).
MPS surveyed its members in 2021 and found that 16 percent were no longer accepting new patients. More than half said their waiting list was one to six months long, and six percent said more than a year.
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Dr. Dyck says if Manitoba is to fill the positions, it needs to offer competitive wages and offer more training opportunities.
“Looking at things like salaries and workload will be such an important element in recruiting and retaining psychologists in the public system,” she said.
He adds that waiting to get treatment for mental illness can cause lifelong complications.
“We certainly want to intervene quickly in a way that prevents the disease from getting worse or affecting it further throughout life,” she said. “We know that mental illness costs Manitoba millions of dollars in medical costs.”
Some patients seek other sources of help while waiting for treatment. MDAM Executive Director Rita Chahal says nonprofits are struggling to fill in, but they’re struggling to meet an overwhelming need.
“When the demand is so high, when people are not getting a clinical examination [help] they need … they have to rely on peer support,” she said.
Chahal says provincial funding for MDAM has not increased since 2007. They recently had to cut staff hours and lay off some people.
“It breaks our hearts, it really does,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking for my staff who say, you know, I wish I could help this person.” The number of calls we get every day for mutual support, people who come to our door and say, ‘Thank God I found a place, I didn’t know where to turn.’ These are stories we hear every day.”
Chahal is glad the pandemic has highlighted the importance of mental health and reduced some of the stigma surrounding mental illness. But it also highlighted how great the need is and the ways in which Manitoba is falling short.
“When an individual’s health and fitness is not great, it affects the family. It affects co-workers. It affects the community. And finally, you know, the country,” Chahal said.
Waiting times are also long for publicly funded addiction treatment. Shared Health says it prioritizes urgent cases, but typical waits are one to three months and can be as long as six.
Manitoba is also the only province west of the Maritimes without a provincial safe place of consumption. Sunshine House, a detention and outreach center in Winnipeg, operates a Mobile Overdose Prevention Site (MOPS), but their federal funding is set to expire in October 2023.
Arlene Last-Kolb of Winnipeg lost her son Jessie to fentanyl poisoning in 2014. As an advocate for Moms Stop the Harm, she has spent years pushing for the government to recognize overdose deaths as a crisis and adopt an approach that includes harm reduction.
“What happens to people while they wait on the treatment list?” she said. “What do they do? Everyone just says no? What happens when you go to treatment and you come out and you relapse? Why is the only option to get someone to abstain? What happens when you want to take the drug? Why aren’t they safe?”
Last-Kolb says forcing people into treatment costs them lives, and that while addiction may be more visible downtown, overdose deaths occur in every part of the city and province.
“It can happen to anyone,” she said, “and you never recover.”
He wants education about overdoses and drugs to be widely available in workplaces and schools, and for drug testing to be readily available so drug users don’t risk death with every overdose.
“I know far too many families who have spent their pension, their pension, mortgaged their house and are still paying off medical bills for a dead child,” she said. “There are too many other mothers like me. This has to stop.”
Because mental illness and addiction are often so closely linked, advocates say it’s time for a comprehensive approach. And while it may mean more funding, Dr. Dyck says it’s the only way to get adequate services to those who need them.
“I can appreciate that the general public and maybe the government are getting a bit tired of everyone needing more money for things,” she said. “But the reality is that there is information that actually suggests that investing in psychological services saves money in the long run.”
Chahal says organizations need to work together to meet the needs of the community as a whole, and that professionals and those with life experiences should be the ones deciding how to provide care. He hopes the government elected on October 3 agrees.
“I think we’re at a point where we really need to put our heads together and put our collaborative hats on rather than trying to do things in isolation,” she said. “I want them to ask their constituents what they need, rather than top-down and say, ‘This is what we think you need as a community. “Ask individuals.
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