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Calls for Island Health to bolster its mental health supports for pediatric cancer patients

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For a family, navigating a child’s cancer diagnosis is hard. It’s not only the physical challenges that will come with treatment, but the mental trauma that the family will need to work through during their cancer journey.

There are now calls to Island Health from families and stakeholders who have navigated that journey to bolster its mental health supports for pediatric cancer patients.

Two and a half years ago, at age 16, Brooke Chambers got news that turned her world upside down.

“I was diagnosed with leukaemia,” said Chambers.

She was rushed to BC Children’s Hospital to begin immediate treatment.

“When I was first diagnosed it was just survival mode,” she said.

After six weeks of treatment, she was able to return home to Sidney where she continued her treatment at Victoria General Hospital. That’s when her new reality began to set in.

“That’s probably when I struggled with my mental health the most,” said Chambers.

“Luckily for us, we were able to connect with a social worker at VGH pediatrics,” said Kim Bull, Brooke’s mother.

Through that social worker, Chambers’ mental health began to improve.

“I can’t even imagine how we would have gotten through it without him,” said Bull.

Last November, that social worker moved on and the position has not been filled.

Island Health does have a part-time psychologist working out of the Queen Alexandra Centre for Children’s Health with a patient load of 20 and a waitlist.

A pediatric psychiatry position was available on a consult basis in past years but according to families, that option no longer exists within Island Health.

Aaron and Elanor Franks’ two daughters Nora and Isla, were born with a rare hereditary disorder called Li-Fraumeni Syndrome. That makes them at high risk of developing a variety of cancers that can be very aggressive during childhood.

“They get screened quarterly,” said Aaron.

As well, once a year the family has to travel to BC Children’s Hospital where Nora and Isla have two days of testing involving an MRI and brain scans.

“It’s a rocky journey for sure,” said Elanor.

The girls deal with constant anxiety and that is taking a toll on their mental health.

“We haven’t had the opportunity to work with a social worker, a psychologist or a psychiatrist,” said Elanor. “Nobody has reached out to us.”

Elanor and Aaron say the family was told by front-line staff at Victoria General Hospital to reach out to the non-profit Island Kids Cancer Association because there is currently no one to connect with at Island Health in regards to pediatric mental health.

“Our mandate is to support all island families and their children facing a childhood cancer diagnosis,” said Susan Kerr, executive director of Island Kids Cancer Association.

A major component of that support is the non-profit’s Touch Stone Mental Health Program. That program offers children and families one on one counselling sessions throughout their cancer journey.

“It will be a drain, we’re seeing little bits and pieces right now,” said Kerr.

Island Kids Cancer is now beginning to feel the fallout of those unfilled mental health positions within Island Health.

“We weren’t created to fill the gaps of Island Health and nor do we have the capacity or the resources to do that,” said Kerr. “That is what we’re expected to do.”

In a statement to CTV News, Island Health says there is currently two days per week psychology and two days per week social worker support available at Victoria General Hospital for patients of ambulatory clinics.

The statement went on to say that an interim child and youth counsellor is being added to support this work and that Island Health is taking action with local, national and international recruitment campaigns focused on attracting staff to the region.

Island Health points out that a range of child or youth mental health supports are available from community-based providers, including through the Ministry of Children and Family Development’s Child Youth Mental Health services.

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