Renee Williams has spent most of her young life battling one mental illness after another.
She was just eight years old when she first thought about trying to harm herself.
“I would try to open the van door and I was going to jump out and my mom started yelling at me,” said Williams, recalling her feelings of confusion. “I remember I wanted to jump out to physically hurt myself, but I never understood it.”
WATCH: Renee Williams encourages others with mental health issues to get help
The 33-year-old from St. Catharines, Ont. said she has been diagnosed with a host of mental health issues over the years including bipolar disorder, depression, anorexia athletica, alcoholism and more recently, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), after being physically abused by a partner.
At 16, she dropped out of high school after dealing with depression. She was also diagnosed with agoraphobia — a fear of crowded spaces or enclosed public places.
“No physical pain can compare to the pain of depression,” Williams said. “It was like I just wasn’t me anymore.”
For her the pain of waking up every day and being afraid to step out of her house was unbearable. Some days she would crawl under her bed to find solace in the dark.
“I was so terrified of what was on the outside,” she said. “It’s beyond sadness, it just takes over your mind. Your mind is telling you the only way to get out of this is to kill yourself because you don’t see anyway how it can get better.”
The agony of dealing with her mental illness continued to grow until she attempted suicide by swallowing dozens of Tylenol.
“I felt like I was going to be free,” Williams said. “My sister is still traumatized from that to this day.”
Williams saw several doctors before she was referred to St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton by her psychiatrist, where she has been receiving help for roughly 10 years. After years of hard work and support from health care professionals, Williams began to recover. She successfully completed her Ontario High School Equivalency Certificate and began using yoga to help alleviate her depression.
Today, Williams is pursuing her dream of becoming a yoga instructor and has become an advocate for mental health awareness and hopes her story inspires other Canadians who may be struggling in silence.
“Suicide is not the answer. There is help. It’s a struggle, especially at first because you don’t understand and sometimes you don’t want to admit there is an issue,” said Williams. “Don’t give up … just keep going.”
One in five Canadians experience a mental health problem or illness, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Among Canada’s youth, nearly a quarter of a million of those between the ages of 15 and 24 have experienced depression and suicidal thoughts, according to the latest numbers from Statistics Canada.
How do you get help?
WATCH ABOVE: Dr. Peter Bieling discusses mental health care in the province.
When it comes to accessing mental health care, people can be deterred by long wait times and the different types of services offered in Ontario’s health care system, according to experts. Private mental health services can be expensive and determining how to pay for them can be a challenge.
Dr. Peter Bieling, director of mental health and addiction services at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, said a visit to a family physician should be the first stop to accessing mental health for most people.
“The thing that is forgotten the most is that mental health is health. So the greatest place to begin is actually with your family doctor,” said Bieling, especially if the person is looking to see a psychiatrist.
Psychiatrists and psychologists are two common options for people seeking therapy. While both are qualified to diagnose mental health conditions the main difference between the two is that psychiatrists can prescribe medication and their services are covered by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP).
Psychologists working for a private practice can come with shorter wait times, but their services are often not covered by OHIP. Their fees can run from $100 to over $200 an hour, Bieling said.
“There is a whole other private system that people can access where the wait times are much less but the costs are going to be billed to your supplemental insurance plan or directly to you,” he said.
Addiction counsellors and therapists with a background in social work are other options but people have to pay for the services out-of-pocket.
Unequal access to services
WATCH ABOVE: Dr. Bieling says province should be more clear about mental health services
Dr. Kwame McKenzie, CEO of the Wellesley Institute, an urban health care think tank in Toronto, said some cities will also have mental health crisis units, like CAMH in Toronto or Crisis Outreach and Support Team (COAST) in Hamilton, where people can access professional help 24 hours a day, seven days a week that is paid for.
McKenzie said while many employer-provided healthcare plans offer some degree of coverage for therapy, often it’s not enough.
“Think about what that would be like if you had a heart problem …. And someone said ‘OK, we’ll only cover you for half the treatment,’” he said. “It’s a ridiculous situation that we find ourselves in.”
Wait times for affordable mental healthcare can depend on a kind of “postal code lottery,” said McKenzie, and where you live depends on how quickly you can get help.
“If you are in downtown Toronto there are quite a lot of psychiatrists,” he said, “but if you live up north you might find it very difficult to find a psychiatrist at all because they are not evenly distributed across Ontario.”
Last December, Ontario’s auditor general slammed the province over the long wait times young people with urgent mental health problems face when trying to access hospitals and a shortage of psychiatric beds.
Currently, Ontario does not track wait times for mental health services. David Jensen, Media Relations Co-ordinator for the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, told Global News the province is “working to standardize wait time definitions and collect wait time information.”
“Once a standardized definition for wait times is in place, wait time information will be collected, monitored and publicly reported for both in-patient and out-patient programs,” Jensen said.
Jensen also said the province is working with the federal government for “long-term health funding that would provide additional funding to mental health care.”
Bieling and McKenzie said governments need to spend more money on Canada’s chronically underfunded mental health care system. Currently, the federal government and some provinces remain locked in contentious negotiations over a new, long-term deal for health spending with mental health being a key concern for both parties.
“It’s pretty clear to us that there isn’t going to be a lot of new money coming into the system. That behooves clinics at the other end to get as efficient as they can,” Bieling said. “The province is just beginning to grapple with the idea that they want to set certain standards for how long people wait for different conditions. That system will improve, but we are definitely challenged right now.”
For Williams, she continues to take each day at a time and continues to fight the stigma of mental illness.
READ MORE: See #ReneesDay on Instagram
“When we see a person on the street corner screaming, it’s a little easier to see that person needs some help. But sometimes there’s people we don’t see,” she said. “That can be somebody you work with very closely and you would never even know.”
Where to get help
- If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
- The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways for getting help if you, or someone you know, is suffering from mental health issues.
- Connex Ontario (1-866-531-2600) or the website is a mental health helpline which offers various services for mental health problems that are funded by the province.
- Speak with your family doctor about any mental health issues you’re experiencing. They can refer to a psychiatrist, which can be a first step in getting help.
- St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton’s Youth Wellness Centre offers mental health care to young people age 17 to 25 and accepts self and family referrals.