The Nova Scotia government will place more clinicians in schools and assess children as young as 18 months old as part of a broad mental health strategy aimed at intervening early and reducing wait times for care.

Health Minister Maureen MacDonald laid out the province's first mental health strategy on Wednesday, saying it will provide $5.2 million for various initiatives in the first year.

MacDonald said the focus of the five-year plan will be on identifying potential mental health conditions early and trying to deliver care to people outside of hospital settings, if possible.

"We need a system that's more community based, we need faster access sooner and we need to intervene earlier," she told reporters.

"These are all things that will provide us with much different results so that people don't end up in crisis."

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Health Minister Maureen MacDonald laid out Nova Scotia's first mental health strategy. (CBC)

The province plans to increase the number of schools with psychologists, nurses or social workers to about 80 as part of an ongoing program to detect mental health concerns, start treatment or refer young people to specialists.

MacDonald said early detection is critical since 70 per cent of mental illnesses begin before the age of 25.

She said they will also screen every child for mental health conditions at 18 months of age to identify any developmental delays and provide suitable treatment.

Not enough health-care workers, says opposition

But Liberal health critic Leo Glavine said that while the initiatives are laudable, the NDP hasn't provided enough health-care workers to handle any increase in the number of people needing care.

"Now we're going to get early interventions and more assessments and diagnoses, but we don't have the resources — that's the whole issue," he said.

"We do not have enough mental health experts."

MacDonald, a former social worker, said the province is expanding a 12-week telephone-based program that helps families manage children with mild to moderate behaviour problems.

She said they will also boost the number of peer support workers to help people with mental health disorders transition from hospital to their communities.

Stephen Ayer of the Schizophrenia Society of Nova Scotia praised the strategy, saying it was key to identify mental illness early to prevent the development of more serious, chronic problems.

He cited $500,000 in funding for certified peer support workers as a good boost for frontline help.

"We're moving forward with mental health care in this province and hopefully taking a leading role in the country," he said, adding that his group was consulted on the strategy. "I'm very pleased."

Advisory panel made recommendations

The report comes almost a month after an advisory panel called on the province to shorten wait times for children and youths who have been referred for a mental health assessment.

The advisory committee produced 61 recommendations for creating the mental health strategy.

It found that long wait times for children and youth with symptoms of mental illness were a particular concern and recommended that urgent cases should be offered an assessment within a week instead of 10 days.

As well, it said semi-urgent referrals should be offered an appointment within two weeks instead of four weeks, and regular cases should be seen within 21 days.

MacDonald conceded Wednesday that the province doesn't meet some of its standards, with some people waiting months beyond the acceptable time limit.

She said they hope to change that and meet their standards with the new strategy.

One in five affected by mental illness

It is estimated that about 180,000 people in the province — or one in five — are affected by mental illness.

The government announced in 2010 that it would draft the mental health strategy following some high-profile cases and scrutiny.

Nova Scotia's auditor general criticized the Health Department in June 2010, saying it failed to evaluate the quality of mental health services across the province.

Months later, provincial court Judge Anne Derrick released her final report into the death of Howard Hyde, a mentally ill man who died in 2007 after a struggle with guards at a Halifax-area jail.

Many of Derrick's 80 recommendations call for improved training, more funding for mental health services and better co-ordination and communication between justice and health officials.