The Saskatoon Health Region will soon open a dedicated assessment unit for patients with addictions or mental health emergencies.

It comes thanks to Les and Irene Dubé's $1-million donation earlier this year to the Royal University Hospital Foundation.

Some families have likened RUH's existing secure mental health areas to jail cells and have long called for improvements in triage facilities for those suffering mental health crises.

"When patients come in who are already under a great deal of distress, we know that an environment that's very busy and noisy only further makes things difficult for them," said Dr. Marilyn Baetz, the head of psychiatry for the Saskatoon Health Region.

Hospital officials look at mental health emergency room

From left: Graham Blue, Saskatoon Health Region director of emergency services, looks on as Dr. Marilyn Baetz and Tracy Muggli, the health region's director of mental health and addiction services, point out where the intake desk will be in the hospital's new emergency mental health assessment unit. (CBC)

Ryan Wright, an advocate for mental health patients in Saskatoon, also spoke to the need for the new facility.

"When things don't get addressed quickly and people aren't able to receive treatment, that's when we see things like suicide," he said. "A mental health emergency unit is really important because mental health problems simply cannot be put on a wait list."

The health region estimated 5,000 people arrive at RUH each year suffering from mental health emergencies. Roughly 10 per cent leave before a doctor can assess them.

"Having this environment will actually be a way that we can start their treatment off in the right way," said Baetz. "It certainly is overdue."

Jae Ford

'I think we're going to end up saving a lot of lives,' said mental health advocate Jae Ford.

"I think we're going to end up saving a lot of lives," said Jae Ford, who has spent months lobbying officials for a dedicated mental health emergency room. 

Three of his close friends took their own lives, after they felt too overwhelmed to wait for treatment at RUH's emergency department.

'The system right now, it can be a killer.' - Jae Ford, mental health advocate

"The system right now, it can be a killer," Ford said, noting mental health patients often feel stigmatized. "You're stuffed into chairs if you're not acutely dying."

The ​Dubés' donation will pay for renovations beginning this month, which will create a temporary seven-patient emergency mental health assessment unit on the hospital's ground floor.

The area sits directly underneath the MRI and CT scan unit, and will be linked to the main emergency department by a corridor.

Construction is expected to take between three and four months.

The province and the health region said the Dubés' donation will also pay for new paint and flooring in two existing secure mental health rooms at RUH. 

Ryan Wright

'When things don't get addressed quickly and people aren't able to receive treatment, that's when we see things like suicide,' said mental health advocate Ryan Wright.

Ryan Wright said with mental health issues on the rise, having quieter, private emergency rooms will be a big help.

"By the age of 40, one in two people will have experienced some sort of mental illness," said Wright. "Mental suffering doesn't really care how strong you think you are. It can happen to anyone."

A permanent mental health emergency unit will open late in 2019, alongside a revamped emergency department at the new Pattison Children's Hospital.