At Laureen Rushton’s house in Belmont, just outside of Truro, N.S., the Christmas tree is lit and poinsettias are on display.
She’s putting on a happy front because she says that’s what her son, Lucas, would have wanted. Christmas was his favourite time of year.
The 18-year-old died in May from what his family believes was an accidental overdose of methyl hydrate.
“After those first few weeks of … waking up and realizing he wasn’t here anymore, I decided that I needed to be his voice and we needed to fight for change,” said Rushton.
According to his mother, Lucas Rushton struggled with his mental health. She said when he was in crisis they often would go to the ER in Truro or Halifax, only to be told there wasn’t a mental health professional on duty after hours.
“When I asked them to keep him, they would send us home and say, ‘No, they’ll give you a call’,” said Rushton.
“I’m still waiting for that phone call “
She estimates her son tried accessing mental health services at least 50 times over the last five years.
Nothing seemed to work, which is why Rushton is now pushing the province to open walk-in mental health clinics, separate from emergency departments.
“I think the medical professionals in the emergency rooms are great at fixing cuts and broken bones and wounds,” Rushton said.
“They’re just not equipped or trained to deal with mental health issues.”
Mental Health and Addictions Minister Brian Comer said walk-in clinics aren’t part of the provincial government’s immediate plan, but he thinks there is “some value” to the idea.
“My goal is, as the minister, would be not only to increase access from a walk-in clinic perspective, but also to be able to offer services in a way where there would be appropriate followup within the community,” said Comer.
He said a focus of the province’s universal mental health pilot program is to increase overall access for Nova Scotians.
He will be meeting with federal officials this winter to prioritize the next steps, since both levels of government have recently created departments dedicated to mental health and addictions.
At local offices of the Canadian Mental Health Association, executive director Karn Nichols said staff commonly hear the same complaint, about a lack of access to services.
“There’s just not a lot to choose from, frankly,” she said.
“Each situation is different, and there is just a lack of that front-end support before they get to crisis, right? That’s where the need really seems to be at this point.”
When Lucas Rushton’s symptoms of depression and anxiety surfaced in junior high, his mother said he didn’t want others to know that he was trying to seek help.
She compares him to Robin Williams, a celebrity whose humour people adored, but who also suffered in silence.
Lucas Rushton made an impact in the local theatre community, as a member of the youth performance company at Neptune Theatre. His boisterous personality and booming voice is captured in countless videos on social media pages dedicated to him under the #lukeslegacy hashtag.
In the last year of his life, he started to speak out about his suffering, in the hope of making a difference for others.
“He knew that the system needed to change,” his mother said.
“He was very much outspoken about a lot of things, and mental health was something that he really wanted to change.”
Urgent care option
The need for in-person, urgent and specialized care isn’t lost on Dr. Vincent Agyapong.
As the chief of psychiatry for central zone, which covers the Halifax area, he wants to create a walk-in space for mental health patients similar to Rushton’s vision.
He said staff are looking at possibly attaching a clinic to the new day hospital currently under construction at the Abbie J. Lane building.
“We are looking at the possibility of having some space in the day hospital for that kind of service so that people don’t have to go and sit in the emergency department at all,” said Agyapong.
“It’s going to be separate from the emergency department, tied into our existing crisis services.”
Laureen Rushton hopes the government will fund Agyapong’s concept in Halifax, and expand to all regions in the province.
“If you could have a place where they’re dealing with mental health issues, they understand how to de-escalate and how to help somebody calm down, I think that that would be a huge step in the right direction,” she said.
Where to go for help
If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis, Nova Scotia Health offers online mental health services.
The province’s toll-free Mental Health Crisis Line is 1-888-429-8167 and available 24 hours, seven days a week.
People can also contact the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 anytime of day.
If you’re experiencing an emergency, call 911.
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