Let’s keep talking

Zébre Rouge employees, volunteers and backers gather for a photo op in the organization’s  bike-restoration workshop in Vaudreuil-Dorion. Zébre Rouge is one of the grassroots initiatives launched here in Quebec by the families of those with mental health issues.

Today was Bell’s Let’s Talk Day, when Canadians are encouraged to join a national dialogue on mental health issues. To give credit where credit is due, it’s thanks to Olympic medalist Clara Hughes that we’re having this discussion.

I’m not about to question Bell’s sincerity and generosity (any brownie points may have been wiped out with the firing of a Bell Media talk show host seeking a leave of absence for an anxiety disorder) or all your supportive retweets. But I will share some of yesterday’s conversation with Judy Ross, the co-founder of Mental Health Estrie.

Judy is the woman who asked Justin Trudeau at last week’s Sherbrooke town hall meeting what could be done to increase funding for mental health support groups such as theirs.

Trudeau famously told her that since they were in Quebec, he’d reply in French. Ross’s question exploded into another of those language-issue dialogues of the deaf rather than a serious discussion about the lack of mental health services in either official language. As I posted, (What I’d tell JT, Jan. 19, http://www.thousandlashes.ca) it was clear from his reply in French that he has no understanding of the core issue – the federal government has the responsibility of ensuring equal access to health and social services for Quebec anglos and francos in the rest of Canada.

Ross told me she’s worried that the purpose of her question was lost in the uproar. I asked her if she’d heard back from the PM’s people on her original concern. Not a word, she replied. She’s hesitant to launch a formal complaint with the Commissioner of Official Languages because she’s hopeful the media storm will somehow morph into a much-needed discussion about funding for mental health support groups such as hers.

I asked her about Mental Health Estrie’s financial footing. Ross said it’s on an even shorter shoestring than it was when it was created 11 years ago. The regional health and social services agency eventually agreed the services they offer are unique and complementary, making them eligible for $52,000 a year. They got half that, indexed. Six years later, they’re making do with $27,000. They fundraise the rest.

That doesn’t include donations to HUGS, their annual winter clothing drive on behalf of the homeless clients of Sherbrooke’s Acceuil Poirier. Ross proudly tells the story of the shelter’s director staring at the table piled with hats, gloves, mitts and long underwear. It was the program’s first year and she was worried they’d done something wrong. He told her that in all his years with the shelter, it was the first time he’d ever seen new clothing being donated and couldn’t wait to play Santa Claus.

I asked Judy whether she’s seen any improvement in how society deals with mental illness. Yes, she told me. The ongoing challenge has been to get Mental Health Estrie’s name out there. She and others sit on MRC working tables. They’ve seen the region’s CLSCs hire mental health teams. She’s seen the mental health teams set up direct links with the CHUS (University of Sherbrooke Health Centres, similar to Montreal’s MUHC and CHUM). First responders have protocols to prevent confrontations with the mentally ill.  ERs have quiet places where those in crisis can get away from jammed waiting rooms. Later this year, a supervised residence will open in Lennoxville for 18-35s with mental health issues.

“Where we see difficulties is with access,” Ross continued. “People go to the ER, where they’re triaged. Once they’re triaged, they’re directed to an area for psychiatric services. There they may wait up to eight hours to see an ER doctor, who may call a psychiatrist – and that psychiatrist may not speak English.”

People with mental health issues usually don’t seek medical help of their own accord, Ross said. Many wait months to seek help and if they don’t have someone to advocate for them, their first reflex is to get up and walk out. So Mental Health Estrie’s volunteers and staff are often called upon to accompany their clients, either to a medical facility or to the courthouse.

“There’s a lot of isolation to deal with – in many regions, no public transit means people live in isolation. Then there’s the stigma of mental illness, the history of bad experiences…”

And there’s language. How, asks Ross, can a unilingual French-speaking psychiatrist get a unilingual English-speaking patient to open up about their thoughts?

She speaks from personal experience. Faced with a family mental-health crisis, she and her husband were forced to find help in Montreal, where they met with Ella Amir and AMI. From that, Mental Health Estrie was born, leading Judy to joke that Amir can add midwifery to her CV.

Ross, now 72, describes the past 20 years “as the best and the worst” as she and the organization she co-founded fight on to change the way we think about mental illness. Justin Trudeau’s language gaffe falls into the silver-lining category. “I just try to grab every opportunity,” she says.

I’m posting this as Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk Day winds down. I’m sure we all retweeted their feel-good message but I can’t help asking what, if any, of the money Bell says it will donate finds its way to Mental Health Estrie, Zébre Rouge or any of the grassroots groups involved in the 24/7 struggle with mental illness. They’re the unsung heroes. Too bad Bell doesn’t see the value in telling these stories. Maybe next year…

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