On November 16, Nicole Munro writing for the Chronicle Herald investigated how suicide victims were turned away at Nova Scotia ERs.
The story raised questions about gaps in Nova Scotia’s mental health supports.
On the Remembrance Day long weekend, I advised a young person in crisis to call the Mental Health Mobile Crisis Telephone Line. The line is presented as:
…available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to support callers who present with suicidal thoughts, self-harming thoughts or behaviors, overwhelming anxiety, difficulty coping with distress, psychotic or distorted thinking, depression, substance use difficulties or any other self-identified mental health concerns.
The young person texted me back that they called the line and there was no answer. After being on hold for some minutes listening to elevator music they left a message, and the machine informed them there would be a 30 minute wait.
Their call was returned, and they visited the IWK where they were seen and received supports before being discharged later that day.
What surprised and concerned me, however, was that they did not receive an immediate response from the crisis line. Half an hour is a substantial wait for a person experiencing a mental health crisis. In addition to the dangers of the wait itself, getting a machine while taking the step of reaching out for urgent support is also worrying.
I understand that it was a holiday weekend, but the line is advertised as available 24/7. In this case, it was precisely the fact that it was a long weekend and services were closed that led to the crisis in the first place — the young person couldn’t access their prescriptions, shelters and other services didn’t have anyone staffing their lines, the young person was in a domestic violence situation so could not return to their housing to get their health card, and the police were also understaffed due to the holiday and couldn’t take the young person to the residence. Calling the crisis line was a last resort, and they were met by another wait and a machine.
The issue here is not with the health care workers or with the service the young person was given, which they told me was very caring and supportive. If the emergency line is not being staffed adequately to meet the needs of callers, then there need to be more resources devoted to the service to make sure it’s available in urgent situations.
Certainly my understanding when I advised them to call the line for help was that they would get immediate service. I thought about calling the line myself to hear the message and ask about the wait time to confirm this experience, but I worried that doing so would take up resources on the line that are already clearly stretched.
Speaking off the record to mental health care workers following this experience, some were surprised that the line had a wait, while others agreed that a wait is normal, and that there is no one to answer the phone when the person on duty is busy.
When you search mental health crisis help in Halifax, the line is at the top of the results. It is absolutely the resource suggested for emergency assistance.
I don’t know if any other callers have experienced wait times with the line, or how common this experience is.
It is absolutely crucial that this service be funded adequately to meet urgent mental health needs. Too much can happen in half an hour, and no one should reach out for help to find a machine, or a wait time that ends up with the response being too late.