Lindsey Johnson waited six months before she was able to see a psychiatrist in Whitehorse, and is still on more wait lists for other therapy. (Jesse Winter/Yukon News)

Long waits, stigma among barriers to getting mental health help in the Yukon

‘I know for certain that there’s a lack of psychiatrists here’

Lindsey Johnson had to wait six months until she got to see a psychiatrist in Whitehorse.

When she finally did, the 24-year-old Yukon College student says she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder — only to be put on a year-long waitlist for a therapy group.

“I appreciate the people who work in the mental health services here, (they’re) very accommodating and friendly.… It’s just the long waits for things,” Johnson said. “When I first saw the psychiatrist, she seemed very sympathetic and she has a huge caseload…. She definitely validated that I waited a long time to see her.”

Johnson isn’t alone in her experience. Extended wait times, especially for specialized programs, are one of many challenges faced by people seeking mental health support services in the North, and is also among the issues being highlighted during this year’s Mental Illness Awareness Week.

Besides being frustrating, being put on a wait list can cause some people to change their minds about wanting to get treatment, a Yukon College counsellor said.

“People, when they’re in a mental health crisis or they’ve recognized that they need help, unfortunately what happens sometimes is … they’re put on the wait list and they’re sent on their merry way,” explained Kathleen Campbell, who also worked as a counsellor in the Vancouver area before moving to Whitehorse five years ago. “That window of opportunity (to help them) … can be lost, so when they get called or when they get contacted saying that they’ve made it to the top (of the list) and there’s service available for them, they might no longer be open or receptive to that support.”

Compounding the issue of wait times is the limited range of services available in the Yukon, another Yukon College counsellor, Angela Neufeld, said. She’s seen the impact first-hand in her private practice, where some of her clients with eating disorders need to enter long-term treatment programs.

“I’ve got young teenage clients that have to spend two or three of four months in Vancouver … Having to go down south adds to the stress and the cost and the impact of (getting treatment) and it’s stressful enough to begin with,” Neufeld said.

And getting help Outside isn’t the end of the story, either, Campbell said.

“The problem that a lot of people experience is when they come back, they’ve gone to a place, they’ve received treatment but when they return home, they’re kind of placed back in their original surroundings without aftercare or follow-up support,” she said.

Johnson hasn’t travelled Outside for treatment since moving to the Yukon four years ago from Prince George, B.C., and although she said she found basic counselling easier to access in Dawson and Whitehorse than Prince George, specialized or additional support is harder, if not impossible, to find.

“I do feel supported (in the Yukon) but I know that I do need more, and it sounds super selfish but I truly feel like it’s not quite the extent that I need, which is frustrating,” she said.

“I know for certain that there’s a lack of psychiatrists here and a lack of people who can be legally deemed as a psychologist.”

Living in communities outside of Whitehorse — or sometimes even in the city — can present another unique barrier to reaching out for help.

“People know each other. I think the difficulty with mental health care is that people are often apprehensive to (let others know they need it),” Neufeld said, giving free substance abuse counselling as an example.

“Even though it’s a free service, there are people who wouldn’t be comfortable going there… because now, they don’t want everybody in town knowing they’re dealing with this problem. And some people are quite okay and comfortable being more public about their issues, but in a small town, if you have a job or you feel like, ‘I don’t really know if I’m comfortable with this being well-known,’ then people may not access service,” she said.

Overcoming the stigma against mental health is the best way to fight back against that and get more people to reach out for help, Mental Health Association of Yukon’s Executive Director Tiffanie Tasane said.

“Overall, the biggest issue (in mental health care) is stigma and (the) inability for people to access resources and supports based on stigma — and I don’t think that’s particular to the North,” she said.

“I think part of what fuels stigma is separating mental health from physical health and until, as a society, the medical professional looks at health more holistically, we’re going to see stigma and eliminating it is going to be a challenge.”

Mental Illness Awareness Week runs from Oct. 1 to 7.

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com