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Not disposable — Reflections on youth and mental health in Nova Scotia

“Life is now a war zone, and as such, the number of people considered disposable has grown exponentially, and this includes low income whites, poor minorities, immigrants, the unemployed, the homeless, and a range of people who are viewed as a liability to capital and its endless predatory quest for power and profits.” – Henry Giroux

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) –  I once was a troubled kid with few adults that bothered to care. After some difficult years I finally learned to develop resilience and a deep hope for finding that elusive happiness in hopeless situations.

Catherine and Bill. Photo contributed.

Coping for many years with mental health issues in my immediate family, dealing with addiction issues and working with troubled kids and their families amidst a broken system gave me the perspective that more people than we’d think are familiar with.The experience inspired me to become a youth care worker, which then became my vocation.

The lack of resources and support and the stigma of mental health, addiction or any kind of disease or so called disability keeps people imprisoned behind walls of silence, denial, oppression and repression.

Anyone who has needed help because they’re struggling with mental health issues will be acutely aware of the lack of resources and timely support.

My late husband Bill died at the age of 26, when I was 27. He suffered from Brittle Diabetes and Paranoid Schizophrenia, which was drug induced at the age of 16. His early death I attribute in part to the lack of care that would have allowed him and his loved ones to cope with his illness.

This desperate experience gave me real insight into how broken the mental health system is, particularly in Nova Scotia.

I met Bill in 1980 at the Young Street Mission while I was studying in Toronto. At this point he was clean and sober, but, I quickly became aware of his medical problems during our first date, which was spent in the emergency ward of St.Michael’s Hospital, due to his diabetes.

Shortly after we were living together for a few months, and he was well. After I completed the course I was taking as part of my studies we moved to Nova Scotia, where we were married within the year.

The difference in the level and quality of psychiatric care my late husband received in Ontario as an outpatient at the Clarke Institute, compared to the care he received in Nova Scotia was like day and night, and so dramatically apparent that it was terrifying.

The psychiatrist my husband saw in my home town pumped him with Valium, which pushed him to a crisis level and causing a psychotic episode. He then left home, and I had no idea where he was until he called me. He’d been admitted into the Camp Hill Hospital under psychiatric care, and was heavily medicated.

When I got to the hospital I waited for hours to speak to a doctor. He gave me maybe ten minutes of his time at the most, and promptly stated.” Mrs. Hackett, I don’t know what is wrong with your husband. He’s acting like a crazy man.” Needless to say I was shocked and couldn’t believe what I’d just heard from this supposedly top medical professional.

At this point I realized I had to get my husband out of there, or he was going to be officially committed. We left and returned to my hometown. Bill continued to go down hill and took off again, this time to Toronto. I reported him missing to the police because I was worried sick not knowing where he was, being so ill and without any insulin.

After I returned to university, trying to finish my last year at NSCAD, I received a phone call from Ontario, saying that Bill was on life support in St. Michael’s Hospital. I promptly headed to Ontario. Bill was brain dead when I arrived. His heart stopped two weeks later.

There are still too many situations like the one I experienced, where people, especially youth, don’t get the right kind of mental health care. They’re over-medicated, misdiagnosed, addicted to drugs or alcohol with a myriad of diagnoses, put on waiting lists, and all too often fall through the cracks.

I’ve observed it many times as a youth care worker. Many kids are suicidal, have various disorders, dysfunctional families, live in poverty, or are in prison, and there is no one to advocate for them.

You often hear the adage from politicians and the like  that our children are our greatest resource, and I believe this to be true. Unfortunately the reality is that we live in a society where youth are disenfranchised, marginalized and are treated like what scholar Henry Giroux has called disposable youth.

For years many of our youth have been in a serious crisis. It’s only getting worse, and I believe we are at a tipping point. The solution lies in being an advocate and to speak up for youth, to be more concerned, more interested and more engaged in understanding them.

If you can, please support the Nova Scotia Advocate so that it can continue to cover issues such as poverty, racism, exclusion, workers’ rights and the environment in Nova Scotia. A pay wall is not an option since it would exclude many readers who don’t have any disposable income at all. We rely entirely on one-time donations and a tiny but mighty group of kindhearted monthly sustainers.



  1. Many youth in foster care have mental health issues…no wonder at all, first they are ripped away from their families ,usually for no good reason.The c.a.s system is so corrupt and broken.

  2. You are right Darlene. I also fostered as a therapeutic parent counsellor. The support the youth recieved from Social Services was very little, and generally made things worse. I was left disheartened, disappointed, and heart broken.

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