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Denied mental health help at Nova Scotia ER, woman drives to New Brunswick for care

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Emily Black was in a manic and suicidal state one night last month, so she says her father called 911.

Police officers showed up, she said, and like several times before, they took her to the Cumberland Regional Health Care Centre in Amherst, N.S.

Black, who has bipolar disorder and lives with autism, says she waited three hours to see a doctor. When she finally did, she says she was told no psychiatric staff were on duty at that time.

The doctor told Black she would have to wait until 9 a.m. the next morning, she said. Black says she woke up at 7 a.m. to a nurse telling her she wouldn’t be seeing a psychiatric doctor and she had to leave.

“It’s a terrible feeling,” she told CBC News. “It makes me feel like I’m less of a person.”

Drove to N.B. for care

Black’s father ended up driving her to New Brunswick for mental health care, she said. She says they went to a hospital in Moncton and she was admitted immediately.

The experience is nothing new for Black, she says. The 21-year-old has suffered from mental illness since she was 10.

“Any time I’ve been in New Brunswick, I’ve always been able to get admitted so easily,” she said. “But in Nova Scotia, I’m turned away almost every time.”

Black says she’s been admitted for as long as a month when seeking care in New Brunswick, but she’s been turned away dozens of times from the hospital in Amherst.

“It’s not a good feeling,” she said. “There’s been nights, you know, where I go to access mental health care at the hospital and then I ended up in jail and they told me that I had to be in jail because there was no place for me.”

Charged for not leaving ER

In March 2021, Black refused to leave the emergency room at the Cumberland Regional Health Care Centre and was charged for mischief.

She says she was experiencing another suicidal episode at home, so police brought her to the hospital. When she got there, Black said the doctor wouldn’t assess her and she was told to leave.

“It was really frustrating,” Black said. “I felt a lot of anger.”

Black says she’s been arrested under the Mental Health Act several times but then was refused care by doctors when police brought her to the hospital.

Living with autism, Black says she’s unable to control her emotions when she becomes overwhelmed sometimes. She says she’ll scream or hit her head when she’s at the hospital, which makes the doctor turn her over to the police.

She says it makes the situation even worse when police become involved.

“A lot of the times when I feel suicidal, it just makes me feel even more suicidal,” Black said. “Because it kind of feels like, oh, even the ones that are supposed to help me, even they don’t care.”

Lawyer sees it ‘all the time’

The head of Nova Scotia Legal Aid’s new Mental Health Legal Services office says it’s common for people who are suffering from a mental health illness and trying to access care to be arrested.

“I see it all the time. I see it every week,” Kelly Rowlett said in an interview. “If I had a nickel for every time somebody got arrested for attending a hospital or in a care facility, I’d be rich and that’s just sad.”

Kelly Rowlett, the manager of Nova Scotia’s new Mental Health Legal Services office, says people who are arrested in hospitals don’t belong in jail. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

The new office consists of three lawyers and two support staff. They will work with legal aid services across the province to advocate for alternatives to jail for people with mental illness and connect them with the appropriate services, Rowlett said.

“It’s about connection and reconnection,” she said. Rowlett says people who are arrested in hospitals don’t belong in jail.

“Once you reconnect people with resources, they’re more successful and so the net result of that is they don’t go to jail because they’ve reconnected and they stay out of trouble.”

Services available in Amherst

Nova Scotia Health declined an interview request for this story.

In an email, a health authority spokesperson said residents in Cumberland County, where Emily Black lives, have access to a “continuum” of mental health services.

Intake service at the Cumberland Regional Health Centre is available Monday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and an urgent care team is also available at the hospital during those hours, the email says.

A community clinic with a team of mental health professionals is located in downtown Amherst and the province’s crisis line operates 24/7.

The spokesperson said emergency departments are an important part of Nova Scotia’s mental health services “and vital to our care continuum to meet patient needs across the province.”

More understanding

Black’s says her problem is with how she’s treated by medical health professionals when trying to access these services. 

“I would like to see doctors being more understanding,” she said.

Black says there’s still a stigma around mental health and some physicians don’t know how to treat it since the problem isn’t visible like other patients in the emergency room.

She says she’s been told by doctors that she’s fine and she doesn’t need to be at the hospital. 

“I know I’m not alone,” Black said. “I know that there’s a lot of people in Nova Scotia who are getting neglected by the mental health system.”

If you or someone you know is struggling, here’s where to get help:



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