Young women fighting for change in how hospital's psychiatric emergency service is run

Advisory: This story mentions self-harm and suicide.

Ella Hale and Emma Epp aren’t waiting for one of their friends to die.

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The two young women, who have struggled with mental health issues since their early teens, created a Facebook group in late February to raise concerns about the way patients are treated at Royal Jubilee Hospital’s Psychiatric Emergency Services (PES).

The group, called PES: A Pathetic Excuse for Support, now has 1,800 members and more than 200 stories from former patients. It attracted the attention of Adam Olsen, MLA for Saanich North and the Islands, who raised the issue of emergency mental health in the legislature.

Hale and Epp have since met with Premier John Horgan and Sheila Malcolmson, minister of mental health and addictions, telling them that patients don’t get the care and support they need and are belittled and mocked at PES. People seeking help are often discharged a couple of hours later feeling worse and having experienced more trauma.

“A lot of people in our group say they would rather die than go back to PES. And I really relate to that,” Epp, 19, said in an interview. “I would never go back voluntarily.”

“We don’t want heated towels and a foot massage,” added 18-year-old Hale. “People are dying. People are taking their lives because staff at PES don’t seem to care.”

Hale was in and out of Victoria General Hospital from the age of 14 for suicidal ideation and attempts to take her life.

“I could go into VGH if I was thinking of hurting myself but hadn’t actually done anything yet,” she said. “You would get the help and they would keep you until you felt safe and your family felt safe with having you. They would make a safety plan. It was a wraparound support system.”

There were specific mental health beds for children and youth on a medical floor.

“It wasn’t amazing but the staff was so kind and compassionate. They had mental health nurses and psychiatrists and child-youth counsellors. …

“… and therapy dogs,” added Epp.

“It was a really supportive environment. But then you turn 17 and you go to RJH [Royal Jubilee Hospital] and it’s the complete opposite,” Hale said.

Hale went to PES for the first time after a suicide attempt and was discharged after three days.

“It was really hard going from spending three months in hospital after an attempt to three days. The whole time I was so out of it because of the medication I took. Spending three days in hospital was not nearly enough time.”

When she saw the psychiatrist, the doctor said there was nothing wrong with her, that she was on too many medications and that if she did kill herself, her father probably wouldn’t care, Hale recalled.

“I just sat there as she talked to me. It was horrible.”

Epp’s story is similar. She was in and out of Victoria General Hospital for self-harm, suicide attempts and eating disorders. When she turned 17, she went to RJH emergency psychiatric services voluntarily, asking for help but was sent home that day.

Last summer, Epp tried to take her life.

She was treated in emergency, then transferred to PES.

“I was discharged the same night I was trying to take my life. And they gave me the rest of my pills back,” she said.

On their Facebook page, one person wrote that they were told by a nurse “to cut deeper next time.”

Meeting with Horgan and Malcolmson on March 12 gave the young women hope that something would change. They met with Island Health on March 16 and again on Wednesday.

In a statement, Island Health said it is aware of the concerns many people have expressed regarding their experiences and care at PES, takes them seriously and is committed to understanding how it can address these concerns in a meaningful way.

Beginning immediately, Island Health will strengthen the process for patients to have their voices heard and have clinical and non-clinical senior mental health and substance use managers on site in the coming weeks to better understand the experience and challenges of both patients and staff. Patients will also receive more information about formally submitting a concern about care.

Hale said the Facebook page with 1,800 people fighting for better mental health treatment is keeping her safe and keeping her going.

“I’m calling this forced recovery,” she said.

“We’re not going to stop until we see change and, like, real change,” said Epp.

ldickson@timescolonist.com

> B.C. Crisis Centre: 1-800-784-2433; online at crisiscentre.bc.ca

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