Russell Wangersky: A tragic wake-up call

Russell Wangersky rwanger@thetelegram.com
Published on January 6, 2017

Shanna and Lionel Desmond hold their daughter Aaliyah in this photo from Shanna Desmond’s Facebook page.

©Facebook

It should be a simple fact: if our country sends people to fight wars, we have to be prepared to help the injured and the damaged afterwards. If we send first responders into danger, we should help with their treatment as well.

Russell Wangersky
File photo

Right now, four deaths in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S., are front and centre in the public eye. It’s pretty clear that Lionel Desmond, a former Canadian soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following service in Afghanistan, killed three members of his family before committing suicide. The victims? His 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah, his wife, Shanna Desmond, and his mother, Brenda Desmond.

Lionel Desmond, acquaintances say, had been seeking help for years.

“He’s been crying out for help from the mental health system,” one family member told the CBC, adding Desmond was turned away from hospital last week because of a bed shortage. He did receive help for his condition from Veterans Affairs.

No one will ever be able to say that the deaths were directly the result of Desmond’s PTSD. But what’s clear is that trying to find help for a complicated mental issue is in both frustrating and destructive — things are bad enough already, and being turned away from help only makes it worse.

Any PTSD sufferer can tell you it is an insidious thing: it moves your life around in ways that are hard to even imagine. Sometimes you can’t sleep; other times, you are afraid to sleep, afraid of nightmares or daytime fugues so real that you believe they are happening to you right then. You might not want anyone standing behind you — ever. At public events, you seek out walls. You might avoid public events entirely. There’s the exhausting effort of being caught in the throes of hyper-vigilance. You may live for weeks with an inability to shake impending and overwhelming dread — you may waste countless hours pre-planning for disaster and calculating how to protect the people you love. And sometimes, paradoxically, there’s the overwhelming and inexplicable desire to go back to the very situations that caused the whole mess, just to feel the extreme fear-based excitement all over again. PTSD can exist at different and changing levels of intensity at different times; you can believe you are free of it, only to have the symptoms come crashing back when you don’t expect it. There is a point when it becomes impossible to even figure out what’s real.

Related:

Deaths in Upper Big Tracadie leave relatives, community shocked

Seek immediate help when in mental health crisis, Dobson urges Nova Scotians

It’s an unworldly, complicated mess, one not easily understood or dealt with.

What is easily understood is that there are treatments, and that Canadian veterans should have rapid and enhanced access to those treatments.

It should be a given that ex-soldiers need the best of care, both physically and mentally.

They’re not getting it — and nor is anyone else, frankly.

We’re at a curious crossing point for mental health: on the one hand, we’re asking people to come out of the shadows, to be open and supportive about mental health issues. On the other hand, those who come forward meet huge wait times or massively expensive private treatment options.

Employee assistance programs — if they exist in your workplace — offer woefully short treatment options. Public systems have extensive wait lists, while private options are ruinously expensive, especially if your condition is serious enough that you can’t work.

We’re told we shouldn’t worry about stigma, but if you come forward and find only closed doors, is it a step forwards or a step backwards?

You can’t be told that you should come out of the shadows, and that people will support and help you, when it is abundantly clear that our medical system isn’t able to do either.

Change has to come, not just in how we view mental health, but in the resources we apply to dealing with it.

Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@tc.tc — Twitter: @Wangersky.