Special Report

Youth mental health services strained, says Calgary doctor

The number of young people in Calgary and area needing mental health services is increasing each year and the system cannot keep up with the demand, says one local doctor.

Demand for hospital beds, outpatient services rising rapidly for young people with mental health issues

Daisy Haynes, 18, on the nine-month wait for treatment following her suicide attempt. 3:38

The number of young people in Calgary and the surrounding area needing mental health services is increasing each year and the system cannot keep up with the demand, says one local doctor.

Some 8,000 young people in Calgary go into the health-care system each year because of mental health issues. Many of them are suicidal.

Increasingly they are showing up at emergency rooms, while some are admitted to hospital.

Dr. Chris Wilkes, medical director for child and adolescent mental health and addiction services with Alberta Health Service's Calgary Health Zone, says the demand is outstripping the capacity to provide services.

"Locally we are having an increase of about 10 to 20 per cent of visits in our emergency room with children and adolescents with mental health concerns," he said. 

Dr. Chris Wilkes, the head of child and adolescent mental health for the area, says Calgary lags behind the national average with only 29 hospital beds available. (CBC)

"There has been a growth in population in Calgary and the services haven’t grown proportionally."

Wilkes says a child in crisis will get a bed, but some children have spent up to three days in the emergency ward waiting for a bed.

Parents of young people who need these services are calling it a crisis and professionals in the field admit they are being stretched to provide the badly-needed services.

Daisy’s story

Daisy is a young woman from Okotoks who has struggled with major depression for several years. The 18-year-old has been cutting herself and has expressed suicidal thoughts.

"I don't want to wake up everyday and not want to be here," she said.

Her mother, Fiona Haynes, took her to see a nurse practitioner in Okotoks.

"The mental health professionals that we have seen have been incredibly kind and helpful. What we’ve come up against time and time again is that there is no place to go or the places have such long waiting lists that they are almost inaccessible," says Haynes.

When Daisy cut both of her arms from the shoulder to the wrist, her mother took her to the hospital. She was admitted and diagnosed with major depression and emotional dysregulation, but was told there was a nine-month wait list for treatment.

"The alternative was that I would pay $180 an hour twice a week at a private clinic for up to two years," said Haynes. "I can't afford to do that and I don't know anybody that could. If I could, trust me, I'd be doing it. They were really kind, but they sent us home and we've just been trying to manage ever since. Some days are OK. Some days are awful. I spend a lot of times being very afraid."

Haynes managed to get her daughter into treatment a little more quickly, but unfortunately it took another crisis.

Daisy was suicidal and carved the word "worthless" over and over into her arm. Her mother took her back to see the nurse practitioner and she now has an appointment for next month with the adolescent psychiatrist, meaning she only had to wait six months.

Haynes works in mental health herself. Seeing her daughter go through the struggle with depression has made her feel helpless.

"There is a bit of my head that understands what is going on and then the other half of me is saying, 'Oh, good grief please not my baby,'" says Haynes. "We feel so helpless and the medical professionals must feel that way too."

Haynes said she is also terrified.

"Any day I could lose her — any day," she said. "What my daughter has is as deadly as cancer. It could kill her as easily, and yet she is forced to wait... She's an extraordinary girl and I just want her to be OK."

More beds coming? 

With only 29 beds for adolescent mental health patients at the Foothills and Alberta Children’s Hospitals, Calgary has the fewest beds than the national average.

There will be eight new beds for adolescent mental health patients at the South Hospital. The new facility is to open in April.

Most children do not end up in the hospital. To pick up the excess, Alberta Health Services contracts residential treatment programs to different agencies, including Wood's Homes and Hull Services.

Bjorn Johansson, a board of director for Wood's Homes, says the agency is able to access programs immediately but some longer-term programs do have wait lists.

"We tried to make sure we have services that can support people in a crisis," he said. "Even though it doesn't necessarily do full treatments, it allows the family and kids to have support and hopefully get to a place where they get more longer-term support, which they often need."

Johansson said it can sometimes be hard for families to navigate the system.

But Dr. Wilkes says it not so much a system as a patchwork of services.

"There is not really a co-ordination of services, so we have a siloed system of providing care," he said.

Wilkes said the system not only has a lack of resources, but it is also under-funded.

Alberta Health Services has identified the need for more youth mental health services as its top priority for the Calgary Region this year. But in the wake of spending cuts in the 2013 provincial budget, it is unclear if AHS will have the money to fund such an expansion.