Filling the Gaps in Access to Rural Mental Healthcare

Ally Waddell is an Instructor at Mental Health First Aid. She holds an Honors Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, and Family Studies & Human Development. The Stigma-Free Society had the opportunity to speak with her about the barriers she faced while seeking mental healthcare as a rural resident, and how she is working to fill this gap. She is now a mental health advocate in her community and helps others face the same challenges she successfully overcame. Read her story below!

I have lived in rural southwestern Ontario my whole life. I grew up in a small town only to move to another small town. I have always loved having friends and family close by, being able to walk across town in 15 minutes, and being greeted by name when I entered my favourite local stores. One downfall to the simplicity of small-town living is that we do not always have the same access to services as someone living in an urban centre. My experience of navigating the mental health system was not unique for someone living in a rural area. I had a hard time being heard, was put on waiting lists, and had to travel 30+ minutes to every single appointment.

My childhood was filled with joy and love. My parents have always done whatever they can to help me succeed and be the best version of myself. They have shown this time and time again when it comes to my journey with mental health. Ever since I can remember, I have had anxiety, always worrying about what is next. As a kid, I also had a phobia of dogs. This phobia was a barrier as it was difficult for us to go places where there would be a dog. To help with this phobia, my parents sought out a counsellor for me who tried exposure therapy. For several weeks, my mom and I would drive an hour each way to have a one-hour session. Living in a rural area, the options for treatment were limited, and driving two hours for a one-hour session was a compromise we had to make for me to find help. I still had this phobia for a few years before I eventually grew out of it, but this was my first experience receiving treatment for my mental health.

Once I reached high school, my mental health began to get worse. I had anxiety, but I was now also feeling depressed and having frequent panic attacks. We made an appointment for me to see our family doctor. I went to this appointment hoping to get help. I wish I could say that was the outcome, but unfortunately, it was not. I was put on medication that had side effects that made things worse for me. I also started counselling. I saw about 4 different counsellors who I wanted so desperately to help me. By this point, I had spent so much time attending and travelling to different appointments with such little progress, and I was feeling frustrated. I wanted help, but nothing was working. My options were limited: they were at least a 30-minute drive away, and everything had a wait list.

Halfway through high school, things changed for the better. I started to see an incredible nurse practitioner (NP). My NP advocated for me to get the help I needed. I received a diagnosis of generalised anxiety disorder, depression, and panic disorder.I was put on a waiting list to see a psychiatrist and social worker. The psychiatrist was based out of a large city that was hours away, but we were able to set up virtual appointments at my NP’s office. This appointment was helpful for me to learn more about my diagnosis and the treatment I would have. Part of my treatment was seeing a social worker. I was able to meet with one through our Family Health Team. I am so grateful to this social worker – she taught me so much and truly made such a positive impact in my life. With the help of medication, my nurse practitioner, and my social worker, things drastically improved.

After I had gone through some things during my first year of university, I needed to go back to see my social worker. I feel so fortunate that I was able to get back into see the same counsellor and have the same positive results. I am happy to say that 5 years later, things are going great. I have the most amazing support system in my boyfriend, family, and friends. I also have tools and coping strategies to help me when things are starting to go downhill.

All of this led me to become an Instructor of Mental Health First Aid through the Mental Health Commission of Canada. I believe that if more community members were trained in how to support someone who is struggling with their mental health, this would make such a positive impact, especially in rural areas where there continues to be long waitlists and troubles navigating the system. This training can help to fill in some of the gaps.

This past year, I have also joined a group with other mental health advocates called North Perth Cares. We are a group of community members who all have been impacted by mental illness in one way or another and are working together to support community members in their journey toward improved mental health.

I feel fortunate to have opportunities to share my passion for mental health with others. A passion that started because as a teenager, I felt so much frustration trying to navigate the system and get help in my rural area. Now, I am an advocate for helping others who have similar struggles.

Thank you for reading about my journey!

If you would like to get in touch with Ally, you can contact her here!