Manitobans struggling with mental illness are having to wait months or even years to get help, in part because of a shortage of psychiatrists.

The Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba says it can take up to two years just to get assessed by a psychiatrist.

Patients are often told to see their family doctor instead, said Tara Brousseau Snider, the association's executive director.

"Though there are some very knowledgeable ones, not all of them have experience or education in this area," she said.

Tara Brousseau Snider

Tara Brousseau Snider of the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba, says persons living with depression need better treatment, not better access to physician-assisted death. (CBC)

​Rosaria Provenza, who was diagnosed with depression when she was 17 years old, has been looking for a psychiatrist since the one she had left Manitoba nine years ago.

"I really felt like I was kind of abandoned. That was the initial feeling I had," she said.

"I wanted the help and needed the help, and I feel like it shouldn't have been that hard."

Now 30 years old, Provenza struggles with anxiety and says she was suicidal at one point.

While she is getting counselling these days and volunteering at the mood disorders association, Provenza said more needs to be done for those who need urgent care.

"It was very disconcerting because I wanted the help, and I felt like I was on the verge of giving up," she said.

"My problem was trying to find a stable medication, and they're the ones that deal with … medications and stuff like that."

Demand for help on the rise

Brousseau Snider said there is a growing demand for help and resources for those dealing with mental illness.

The association helped about 7,000 people seven years ago, whereas in the last year it has seen 55,000 people, she said.

Dr. Murray Enns

Dr. Murray Enns, the medical director of mental health with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, says officials have already replaced almost all the psychiatrists that have left the city over the past few years. (CBC)

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority says treating mental-health patients requires teamwork from a variety of health-care professionals, including family doctors.

"The reality is a very large quantity of mental-health care is provided by family doctors, and if it wasn't, the psychiatrists would be even more alarmingly swamped than they currently are," said Dr. Murray Enns, the WRHA's medical director of mental health.

The health authority says the shortage of psychiatrists is a national issue, as some are being lured away for higher-paying jobs.

Enns said the WRHA is currently recruiting and has already replaced almost all the psychiatrists that have left the city over the past few years.

"We've really been working on recruitment and we've brought in psychiatrists — a couple from out of province and five … international graduates from the U.K. and Ireland," he said.

Brousseau Snider said a "concerted effort" has to be made to bring more awareness and education of mental-health issues to general practitioners.

Stopping Stigma

This week, the CBC's Nelly Gonzalez explored the issue of mental illness — and the stigma that often comes with it — in a series called Stopping Stigma.

Read earlier stories from the series:

With files from the CBC's Nelly Gonzalez