A small group protested Monday morning against the Saskatchewan government's decision to put a new mental health emergency wing on hold.

Mental health workers, families of patients, and the Opposition NDP's health critic Danielle Chartier spoke to media outside the University of Saskatchewan campus.

"We're here today to get the Sask. Party government to put their money where their mouth is and support staffing for a mental health assessment and short stay unit in the emergency department at RUH," said Chartier.

The unit at Saskatoon's Royal University Hospital was scheduled to open this fall. The project received a $1 million private donation, and has enough funding to build the facility, but the government has not provided funding to staff the unit.

The Ministry of Health said in an e-mail statement that the Saskatoon Health Region submitted a formal project proposal in September, which the ministry is reviewing "to ensure sustainable funding is available for annual operating costs."

Traditional emergency rooms 'not the right environment'

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Mental health workers Morgan Wickett and Jenna Neufeld have sat with clients in crisis for up to eight hours in the emergency room, waiting for treatment. (Bridget Yard/CBC News)

Mental health worker Morgan Wickett likens a client in crisis to a person having a heart attack.

"You wouldn't leave someone having a heart attack in an emergency room for eight hours," she said

"I believe mental health should have the same dignity. Because it's just as life-threatening."

According to the Royal University Hospital Foundation's website, 9,000 people came to the RUH emergency room last year because of mental health and addiction issues.

Ten per cent of those patients — roughly 900 —  left without receiving care, or without the consent of a doctor. That number is the highest in Canada.

Lucy Mauerhoff's son is one of the patients who stayed.

"They said he had to be admitted to the Dube [Centre for Mental Health at RUH] and there was no bed," she said.  

"They put him into a jail cell in the Emergency. This is an honest to goodness jail cell used for violent patients."

Mauerhoff's son suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder and had become anxious and confused.

Mental health workers say a person in crisis confronts systemic issues even as they walk through the emergency room doors.

"It's not the right environment for mental health either," said Jenna Neufeld

"Imagine walking into a place where you're thinking of taking your own life, and there's things going on around you, and because you don't have a physical injury they can't put you to the top of the list."

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Lucy Mauerhoff speaks to reporters outside the U of S about her son's experience as a mental health patient navigating Saskatoon emergency rooms. (Bridget Yard/CBC News)

Critic calls unit a 'no brainer'

The Saskatchewan government has said that despite a $1 million donation from philanthropists Irene and Leslie Dube towards a new unit, there are "additional considerations," like a new emergency department at the Jim Pattison's Children's Hospital, opening in 2019.

NDP health critic Danielle Chartier argues the decision to fund staffing at a new mental health emergency room is "a no brainer."

"It could be staffed with psychiatric nurses. It's not a big funding request," she said.

"And there's federal dedicated dollars to the tune of about $160 million over the next 10 years."

Both Chartier and the mental health workers present stressed that staff within the city's emergency rooms are not the issue, but that the facilities are not built for, or equipped to handle, mental health crises.

"The staff do the best they can," said Jenna Neufeld.

She calls a future mental health emergency room at RUH a "sanctuary" compared to what patients deal with now.