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09/04/2018 12:28 EDT | Updated 09/04/2018 12:28 EDT

20 Years Of Anxiety Have Shown Me Canada Needs Regular Mental Health Care

It's about time we start treating mental illness the same way we treat physical health conditions.

I've dealt with anxiety for the past 20 years. My earliest memory of anxiety disrupting my life was when I was eight years old and too anxious to say goodbye to my favourite Grade 3 student teacher. In 1998 and 1999, at the height of the hysteria surrounding Y2K and the new millennium, my anxiety became unbearable to the point of throwing up.

I've always been an anxious person, but for the most part it never disrupted my life or impacted its quality until a few years ago.

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After flying at least 20 times from 2007 to 2012, I suddenly became afraid of travelling and being in public. I needed a seat close to the door of the airplane when flying to Chicago last year. I could no longer travel by car or public transit during rush hour. I needed an aisle seat at the stadium when going to Blue Jays games. The night before driving home from Cleveland, Ohio, I called up my best friend saying, "It's a four-hour drive. What happens if... I get stuck in traffic? A tractor trailer is on fire? I have to use the washroom and my car runs out of gas?"

I used to define all these things as little "quirks" of mine. Eventually, "my quirks" became too disruptive and I knew I had to find out why I was feeling this way.

During a comprehensive psychiatric assessment I had last year, I was diagnosed with agoraphobia which is defined by the Mayo Clinic as "a type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed."

The psychiatrist who assessed me recommended I undergo Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, which is defined by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) as "a structured, time-limited, problem-focused and goal-oriented form of psychotherapy. CBT helps people learn to identify, question and change how their thoughts, attitudes and beliefs relate to the emotional and behavioural reactions that cause them difficulty."

Setting goals for myself each week and checking in regularly was very helpful.

I did 11 two-hour sessions of CBT at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton, and it positively impacted my life. Setting goals for myself each week and checking in regularly, along with sitting down with other people facing similar difficulties as me, was very helpful. These regular check-ins also kept me accountable for ensuring I was doing things that forced me to face my illness, helped me avoid relapsing and improved my quality of life.

Once I completed CBT, however, I was told that I should go to my local hospital if I needed help going forward. This isn't realistic for people with mental illness or any chronic health condition.

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A 2017 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that the majority of people in Ontario who went to an emergency room did not see a psychiatrist within six months, despite the provincial government offering financial incentives to do so.

And when they do see a clinician or therapist, it's unrealistic to assume short-term treatment will be sufficient. These professionals spend years in post-secondary institutions learning the skills needed for coping with mental illness. There's no way you can pass that knowledge along and teach somebody those skills in 24 hours of sessions over three months. While my life is much better as a result of CBT, there is a real and genuine fear of relapsing without regular treatment.

If people with chronic physical conditions were not being followed by specialists, society would be protesting.

Part of this barrier to access is cost. According to a 2015 report from the Government of Canada, approximately five million Canadians receive treatment for their mental health. The report also said, "Many people pay out of pocket for treatment from private practitioners (e.g. psychotherapy by psychologists) or for private residential care."

Canadians pride themselves on having universal health care, but is it truly universal if some people are able to afford private and faster care for their mental health while others can't?

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I have four mental illness diagnoses that have wreaked havoc on my life. I have dealt with anxiety for the better part of 20 years, to the point where I had to my plan my life around my agoraphobia. While my family doctor sees me regularly, I am not regularly followed by a psychiatrist or any mental health care professional because I am deemed to be stable.

Like it or not, my mental illnesses are a chronic condition. I have lived with them for most of my life and I accept I will always have them. My mother has chronic liver and heart issues and sees specialists every four to six months despite being medically stable for the past 18 months. If people with chronic physical conditions were not being followed by specialists, society would be protesting. Why is it OK for people with mental illness to be treated any differently?

It's about time we start treating mental illness the same way we treat physical health conditions. It would benefit us all.

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