The parents of a woman who lived in Dartmouth, N.S., say their daughter died after being turned away from a mental-health clinic, and they want to know why it was so hard for her to get help.
Yuliya Andriychuk, 32, froze to death outdoors in a neighbourhood near the Woodlawn Library in November, after her appointment at the clinic was cancelled, her parents say.
“The death of our daughter is because of the mental health system,” Yuliya’s father, Michael Andriychuk, told CBC News.
Michael and his wife, Irina, say their daughter had struggled to reliably access mental health care in recent years, and they blame a shortage of staff.
She received proper treatment at times, they say, but she was neglected in the weeks leading up to her death.
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‘They lost her’
The Andriychuks say their family moved to Canada from Latvia in 2000. Yuliya went to high school in Halifax, they say, and returned to the area in recent years after going to university out of province.
She was beautiful and intelligent with an exciting future ahead, her parents say. She had many hobbies like writing, painting and fishing, and was in her final year of studying psychology at Dalhousie University.
“My daughter, whatever she did, she did to the full extent,” her father says.
Yuliya had also been living with depression since 2020. They say she received varying levels of care when her mental health deteriorated.
She struggled to access care at first, they say. Getting help was so challenging for their daughter that they sent a letter to the health minister at the time.
She was eventually admitted to hospital, and had three extended stays in the three years before she died.
During her second stay in 2021, they say Yuliya was left unsupervised and managed to leave the hospital.
She walked out of the Abbie J. Lane Memorial building in Halifax and over the bridge to Dartmouth in her socks, and showed up at home at 4 a.m.
“They lost her,” Irina says. “We were definitely shocked by what happened.”
During the same stay, her father says he returned Yuliya to the hospital after a weekend out to find her bed had been taken by another patient.
When Yuliya did receive extensive treatment, the Andriychuks say her mental health improved.
In the weeks before her death, they say she went to the hospital for help because she was struggling, and waited three days to see a specialist.
Instead of being kept for extensive treatment, the Andriychuks say Yuliya was discharged.
She went to the Dartmouth mental health clinic for an appointment two weeks later, they say, but she was told it had been cancelled.
Yuliya died later that night.
“What’s the reason?” Michael Andriychuk says. “The shortage of staff. Everybody knows it.”
More workers needed
In October, which is the most recent month for which data is available, the vacancy rate for full-time psychologists working for the health authority was 33 per cent.
For full-time clinical therapist positions, it was 34 per cent – that’s up from 22 per cent in October 2020.
The term clinical therapist can represent several positions such as occupational therapists, social workers, counselling therapists or masters psychologists, according to Nova Scotia Health.
Dana Pulsifer, senior director of the Mental Health and Addictions Program at Nova Scotia Health, says they can’t comment on individual cases due to privacy rules, but the health authority does conduct internal reviews when incidents like this happen.
But she acknowledges the last few years have been “a bit harder … like everywhere else in health care.”
Operating this short-staffed is a challenge but the department has found ways to continue offering a high level of care to those who need it, Pulsifer says.
“We pivot very quickly,” she says. “Because we work as a kind of a multidisciplinary, comprehensive team.”
Pulsifer also says she’s unaware of any appointments at the mental-health clinics being cancelled due to staffing shortages.
The vacancies are just one of the problems the health authority faces when “trying to provide good evidence-based treatments and support and services in a timely way,” she says.
The health authority has recently had some success in recruiting mental health professionals, says Dr. Andrew Harris, senior medical director for mental health and addictions.
He says they’ve recruited several psychiatrists who are starting to work in underserved communities in the province.
Harris says he wants Nova Scotians to know everyone working for the health authority cares about the patients they serve.
“We’re very aware that people are sometimes frustrated that their perceived care needs are not met by the system,” he said. “But we do take care of everyone. So everyone who would come into our system is thoroughly evaluated by experts.”
The current level of service still isn’t good enough for the Andriychuks though. They say if their daughter had received timely and adequate care, she would still be here today.
“She wanted to live, she had a lot of plans,” her mother said. “She didn’t get help.”
Anyone struggling with mental health can call 911 in an emergency, or the province’s toll-free mental health crisis line at 1-888-429-8167, which is available 24 hours, seven days a week. To self-refer to a Community Mental Health and Addictions clinic, call 1-855-922-1122 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. AT on weekdays,
People can also contact the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 anytime of day.