Tera Hawes first reached out for help with her mental health around 2011, when she was suffering from what she now knows as a hypomanic episode.
“There [were] lots of areas where my life was kind of spiralling,” she said.
The 37-year-old from Vancouver was overspending, using substances and had endless energy which led her to exhaust herself socially, just some of the ways hypomania affected her.
“The impact on my life was monumental.”
It wasn’t until six years later, in 2017, that Hawes was accurately diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, characterized by hypomanic episodes and deep bouts of depression.
She is not actively suicidal, non-violent and not living with addiction. Those three traits place her and many other British Columbians within a group that can struggle to get timely mental health support, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).
“There is a space of people who aren’t at the point of needing an emergency department or who aren’t needing crisis care who are caught in this middle space,” said Jonny Morris, CEO of CMHA BC.
“Finding the right services at the right time is challenging, or there’s a wait for those services, or the service isn’t the right fit,” said Morris.
Hawes needs a psychiatrist for her treatment. She has been trying to connect with one throughout the four years since her diagnosis, without success. She says at one point, her doctor told her there were simply no psychiatrists taking new patients.
“I followed up, I followed up, and nothing ever followed through,” she said. “Sometimes you just want some help, and I don’t need somebody to hold my hand. I just want to feel like I’m being supported.”
The impact of having to wait for help
The gap between asking for help and connecting with the right support has had dire consequences for Hawes at several points in her mental health journey.
“It was real deep, like not knowing how you’re going to get into the next day,” she said.
Now COVID-19 is creating a greater need for help, from a mental health care system that is already strained. Data from the CMHA gathered through an online panel suggests 37 per cent of British Columbians’ mental health has declined during the pandemic. The margin of error in the study is plus or minus 1.7 per cent at a 95 per cent level of confidence.
Lucas Britton is part of the group that is struggling. The University of British Columbia student lives with symptoms of depression. He was managing them successfully until he was isolated when COVID-19 restrictions came into place in 2020.
“I was in that dark, bad space, and all of the normal things I would have done to help me out weren’t available,” he said.
It took Britton a month of searching to get an appointment with a counsellor.
Funding coming for improved accessibility
The federal Liberals, Conservatives, NDP and Greens have all promised new funding for mental health initiatives should they form government.
The B.C. NDP is investing $500 million over the next three years into mental health and addictions supports. The majority of the money will go toward initiatives related to the toxic drug crisis and nearly $100 million is dedicated to youth-focused resources. A smaller portion, $61 million, is earmarked for improving accessibility and quality of mental health supports for adults like Britton and Hawes.
Since announcing those figures in the 2021 provincial budget, the province has also dedicated several million dollars of pandemic recovery funds to improve accessibility, but B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson admits some people are being left behind.
‘There are definitely still gaps’
“There are definitely still gaps in the system,” she said. “We don’t want people to have to build to a crisis in order to get access to help.”
Hawes is now managing her bipolar symptoms, but years after she first reached out for help.
“I still have yet to have somebody who I can say is fully in my corner, from a medical perspective,” she said.