It’s time to take mental health maintenance more seriously

Mental healthcare can’t just be reactive, it also needs to be preventative

Kirby Harris reveals her relationship with the current institutions in place for mental health.

When you’re in a state of mental health crisis, you become a priority. When you’re no longer a priority, maintaining your mental wellness becomes far more difficult than it should be. 

I experienced this firsthand when, two weeks after returning to school for winter term, I marched into Student Wellness Services with the mission of getting my mental health back on track. I had been in the room for less than a minute when I was told it would take a lot longer than I had originally anticipated.

“We’re currently booking into the end of March,” the front desk employee told me after making it clear that a walk-in appointment wouldn’t get me what I needed. “How far away is your family doctor?”

“Vancouver,” I said.

Being on the other side of the country, my family doctor wasn’t an option. I should have seen her over winter break, but I was only home for three weeks, and I didn’t want to use my precious time going to the doctor’s office.

The employee handed me a paper card in response. She told me, almost apologetically, “This card has a number on it that you can call on Monday mornings to check for cancelled appointments.” She never offered to book me the appointment that was more than two months away.

I guess she assumed that when you want antidepressants, you don’t want to wait that long. Still, I wasn’t offered any kind of priority or alternative. I wasn’t in any kind of distress or in need of immediate help. A few panic attacks here and there hardly constitute an emergency.

The problem is that our mental health systems aren’t set up to be preventative, but reactive.

We’ve finally made it to a point where mental health is slowly being considered part of general healthcare, but it’s still hard to get help unless your mental illness has gotten to the point where it’s unmanageable.

I was on the antidepressant escitalopram, better known as Lexapro, when I was 17, and I remember it helped with my anxiety immensely. At the time, I thought I went off it because things started looking better in my life, and I wasn’t all that great at taking a pill every day.

Looking back, I realize I went off the drug not because I was entirely better, but because I was coping. I had been in the depths of despair for almost all of 2017, and being able to do normal things like go to school every day and hold down a part-time job felt like such success that I was under the impression that I had slowly become perfectly fine.

When I felt my mental health slipping again last term, my first thought was that I should return to therapy or find a psychologist. When things were bad, those appointments acted like the first line of defense that kept my brain from running in circles.

In Kingston, though, it’s hard to find professional help. The psychologists I managed to contact told me they weren’t accepting new patients at the time. They told me they could put me on waiting lists and give me information on the steps to take if I felt I needed immediate help. I didn’t need that. I have coping skills, and most days, I feel fine.

Seeking out medication was an afterthought, just like the last time I was on it. Back then, I didn’t want to go back to therapy as I started my last year of high school, so I went to my family doctor and took her up on her offer of medication when things got bad again. That’s how I ended up on Lexapro in the first four months of my senior year.

Once I reached a sustainable point and began to cope again, I went off the medication. My sense of stability lasted without drugs or therapy, and I coasted through my first year of university without feeling like I had just two years before.

Like everyone else, I had bad mental health days. Fortunately, those bad days were so insignificant that they may as well not have existed.

Even during my best days last year, I knew the stability I felt wouldn’t last forever. My breakdown in high school was a one-off event, but still the result of a lifetime of anxiety finally bubbling over. When that happened, I got to a functioning level before returning to my life as someone who no longer needed emergency mental health services. 

I don’t want to have to wait until I can’t deal with day-to-day life to get help. I’m seeking help now so that never happens again.

I’m not in a crisis this time. I’m perfectly functional: capable of going to class, eating meals, and even going to the gym six days a week. The truth is, there are a lot of people who need mental health support more than me.

I’m glad that the people who need help the most are first in line, but disappointed that it seems to result in people like me being pushed to the side altogether. The narrative of “no problem too small” doesn’t serve anybody’s best interest when people with a history of mental illness can’t be seen to address their small problems.

It’s time we start having the hard conversation about what needs to be done to change that. Whether that means widespread expansion of dedicated mental health services, or simply expanding general healthcare to be more inclusive is unclear.

What is clear, at least to me, is that nobody should be turned away when they make the difficult decision to try and get professional help. Going to the doctor should never be this hard.

Kirby Harris is a second-year global development studies student. 

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