Saskatchewan’s long-awaited children’s hospital may not help the long wait for youth mental health services.
There will be no in-patient beds for children and teens at the Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital currently under construction.
Dr. Tamara Hinz is a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Saskatoon. She said the time has passed for any changes to the facility.
“For better or for worse, this is what we’re working with going forward,” she said, adding the focus now should be on bolstering the number of support staff to deal with a growing problem.
“Even if there aren’t specific beds there for children with mental health problems, mental health issues come up all the time in a child with diabetes or cystic fibrosis or appendicitis.”
The current waitlist to see a child psychiatrist in Saskatoon is two years’ long.
“That’s completely unacceptable. For a child struggling, that’s two whole grades, two years. So much can happen in that time,” Hinz said.
“When everyone’s problem is urgent, we just don’t have the capacity to meet that need.”
Saskatchewan’s children’s advocate Corey O’Soup agreed in his recent annual report.
“The wait times for mental-health services experienced by children in this province are shameful,” O’Soup told The Canadian Press at the time.
The report says 19 children died in the province’s care last year, and 47 were critically injured.
Of those cases, two were suicides while 11 young people were injured in suicide attempts. First Nations and Metis youth accounted for 79 per cent of deaths and 65 per cent of the critically injured.
Suicide rates in Northern Saskatchewan communities are also indicated in the report.
Indigenous boys between the ages of 10 and 19 are six times more likely to die from suicide while Indigenous girls of the same age are 26 times more likely to take their own lives.
Minister says supports are in place
Greg Ottenbreit, the province’s minister of rural and remote health, says there are supports for youth presenting mental health challenges.
He told 650 CKOM the new children’s hospital was designed with “best practices in mind,” and will provide outpatient services.
For more acute cases, The Irene & Leslie Dubé Centre for Mental Health, near Royal University Hospital (RUH), has 10 beds specifically for children.
“We have the core of the professionals (at the centre), but they are able to work alongside and in the new children’s hospital,” he said.
Ottenbreit added the mental health assessment unit at RUH is for patients of all ages.
“Firstly assessing their condition, then outpatient mental health supports. If it’s more acute, moving them to the Dubé centre,” Ottenbreit said.
“It reduces some of the waits and the environment of the emergency room.”
He said the province is working to reduce the wait in Saskatoon, on the recommendations of the children’s advocate. Right now, they’re looking at how well Prince Albert and Regina are handling needs in those cities.
“We’ve asked them to look into what best practices they’re using in those communities and integrate them in the delivery of services in Saskatoon.”
While recruiting campaigns for the children’s hospital are underway, the plans don’t specifically call for more child psychiatrists or psychologists.
“It sounds like they’re certainly doing lots of great work, and being successful, in recruiting other types of doctors who work with children — and I just don’t want mental health excluded,” Hinz said.
The province currently has 15 child psychiatrists. Hinz said the shortage of these professionals appears to be widespread, and training is one part of the delay.
There’s four years of post-secondary before entering med school — another four years — plus a psychiatry residency of five years.
“Then there’s one additional year tacked on to that for your child certification,” she said. “We’re talking about a very long process of education.”
Hinz is optimistic. Her department recently hired a nurse to help with triage; however, funding is in place only for a year.
“The wheels are starting to turn and I do see some hope in that.”
She also pointed to Manitoba’s efforts to double its number of child psychiatrists to the current 32.
“If they can do it, I don’t see why we can’t either.”
She said the provincial government needs to find creative ways of recruiting, and encouraging people to pursue the career.
— With files from 650 CKOM’s Chris Vandenbreekel, Daniella Ponticelli and The Canadian Press.