Warning: This story contains topics dealing with mental distress and suicide.

VICTORIA – Both nurses and people who receive mental health care at Vancouver Island hospitals say they are concerned about their safety and want to see improvements to the system.

Two island residents, Emma Epp and Ella Hale, started a social media group after they were left feeling unsupported and unsafe in the hospital system while being treated for their mental health.

Both have been admitted to the Psychiatric Emergency Services (PES) ward at Royal Jubilee Hospital after suicide attempts. They say they did not feel safe during the experience.

"I physically did not feel safe being in a room with a bunch of different types of people," said Epp.

The B.C. Nurses Union says there has been a notable increase in violence towards its members, particularly from patients with mental health challenges.

"The pressures that we're all facing under the COVID pandemic are only that much greater when you have a number of other health challenges," said Christine Sorensen, president of the B.C. Nurses Union.

"It is unfortunate, but sometimes some patients do escalate, and there are increasing amounts of violence that not only nurses and health-care workers are being exposed to, but also other patients," she said.

After starting their social media group, Epp and Hale say that other community members are reporting similar experiences.

"People (are) saying, 'I'm supposed to feel safe at this place and I don't,' at the one place that you're supposed to feel safe," said Hale.

'Under-resourced and under-staffed'

Besides safety, Hale and Epp say that not enough support is available at PES.

"They sent me home and I remember feeling so discouraged and so invalidated by the one place that was supposed to validate me," said Epp.

The nurses union says it would also like to see improvements to both safety and resources within B.C.'s health-care system.

"We do need to do more," said Sorensen. "Nurses are committed to providing the best care they can, but they really are under-resourced and under-staffed and we have no place sometimes to refer patients when they are discharged."

To address safety, the nurses union has identified 21 emergency rooms across the province where it would like to see increased security.

Three of those emergency rooms are on Vancouver Island, at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital, Victoria General Hospital, and Royal Jubilee.

The union says it has asked the province to provide protection officers at these sties to help patients and staff feel safer.

Island Health and the B.C. government promise reviews

Island Health says it has spoken to Epp and Hale and will be implementing changes both in the immediate and long term.

"We are aware of the concerns many people have expressed regarding their experiences and care at PES, and we take these concerns seriously," Island Health said in a statement Wednesday.

In the short term, the health authority says it will be sending senior mental health and substance use staff to PES to better understand current conditions for both patients and employees, and will be improving the process for patients to provide feedback in the future.

Island Health adds that it will be updating its professional development and will have ongoing meetings with stakeholders.

Members of the B.C. government also say they've met with Epp and Hale and are reviewing the province's mental health services.

"On March 12, Premier Horgan and I met with Ella and Emma to hear about their concerns and ways that we can improve care for patients accessing mental health services," said Sheila Malcolmson, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions in a statement Wednesday.

"They expressed tremendous courage and strength in coming forward to share their stories," she said. "We heard that our system needs to do better, and we reconfirmed our commitment that people deserve to be treated with respect and dignity when they are accessing mental health services anywhere in the province."

If you are suffering from mental health distress or are having suicidal thoughts, CTV News Vancouver Island urges you to seek help by contacting the Vancouver Island Crisis Line at 1-888-494-3888.