Officials with a new centre in Sudbury for people who are experiencing a mental health crisis say there has been a significant demand for services.

Visits have more than doubled since the site opened at the beginning of October. It provides people in crisis a place to go other than the hospital emergency room.

The administrative director of the new site, which is run through Health Sciences North's Sudbury Mental Health and Addictions Centre, said nearly 750 patients have been served in two months.

Maureen McLelland said the client uptake is due to a number of factors — one being a calm, welcoming environment.

After hours help

"It doesn't appear overcrowded, it's not the same scene that you might see in the emergency department on any given day," she said.

"Just being available after hours for folks and being open on weekends [has helped]."

McLelland remarked the environment itself is very sensitive to the needs of people "who may have personal issues that they're wanting to talk about."

"Contrast that with just the physical environment of the emergency department," she said.

"We certainly offer a more sensitive location in terms of discussing those personal things, with privacy. And people who are coming in for the first time looking for support actually have a very calm waiting room."

Personal support

In keeping with an expansion of mental health services, a new "crisis system navigator" position has been created with the CMHA to provide support to mental health patients in the emergency department’s waiting room, as well as accompany patients to the dowtown crisis centre.

The new position will help ease patients' anxiety before they see a physician or nurse, Marion Quigley, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association noted.

"We don't want people to go to crisis and then not follow through," she said.

"So if an individual is tired of waiting and feels like their needs aren't being met, we want them to be able to talk to somebody, so that's what this individual will assist with also."

Quigley said the position is a three-month pilot project funded by the Northeast Local Health Integration Network. She added similar mental health positions have been successful across Ontario.

The CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association, which is located just a short walk away, said the crisis centre has helped them as well.

"They can make appointments," Marion Quigley said.

"Their worker at the CMHA and the crisis worker can work together, so those are the sorts of things we can hope evolve as the program continues."

Quigley said she now has a place where she can refer mental health patients, rather than sending them to the already-busy emergency department.

Hoping to expand

This new downtown centre is meant to complement the emergency department, not replace it, emphasized Dr. Rob Lepage, medical director of the hospital’s emergency department. The number of mental health patients seen in the ER remains consistent.

Lepage said mental health patients don't come into the hospital with visible wounds and sickness symptoms like many other patients — but that doesn't mean they should be treated any differently.

"We never discourage anybody from coming to the emergency department because, even if people think it isn't a significant problem, it may turn out to be [one]," he said.

"So it's not until they're assessed by a nurse or a doctor — maybe had some tests — [that] we can determine that they're safe to go home, but I never want to discourage someone from getting care."

Over the next few years, the crisis intervention centre says it hopes expand its services to outlying areas of the city.

"We sure would like to support our outlying areas a little differently than what we do now — which is simply phone support," McLelland said.

"We don't have crisis teams in the other areas that [the hospital] serves … So growing the capacity is something we're all going to need to turn our attention to."

In the meantime, McLelland said, the centre is going to keep raising awareness in the community through a billboard and bus advertising campaign that will help people find out about the downtown centre.