Alberta psychiatrists call for funding to address youth 'mental health emergency'

Alberta psychiatrists say the pandemic has driven a youth mental health crisis into a full blown emergency and they're calling on the provincial government to step in and help.

Doctors call for meeting with Health Minister Jason Copping

A boy sits in a corner and holds his head in his hands.
Two-thirds of parents who responded to the survey say their child's mental health has deteroriated. The impact increases with age. Seventy-seven per cent of parents with kids 15 and up say their teen's mental health has suffered (40 per cent define it as "much worse than prior to the pandemic). (Brian A. Jackson/Shutterstock)

Alberta psychiatrists say the pandemic has driven a mental health crisis among children and youth into a full blown emergency and they're calling on the provincial government to step in and help.

Members of the Alberta Medical Association and the Alberta Psychiatric Association say COVID-19 and the isolation that has come with it has exacerbated a pre-existing mental health crisis among children and they're asking for a "significant" increase in funding for child and youth mental health care services.

And they want to meet with Health Minister Jason Copping to plot a way forward.

"To say that I'm worried about the kids in this province would be an understatement," said Dr. Sterling Sparshu, section president of the child and adolescent psychiatry section with the Alberta Medical Association.

"I've never seen so many kids suffering so badly. I've never seen so many families in need of hope and I've never seen so many colleagues struggling with the degree of burnout they are right now. The system is on the edge of collapse."

Sparshu, who works in the emergency room at the Alberta Children's Hospital in Calgary said the province's youth mental health system was already overburdened and underfunded before the pandemic.

    "And then when we add the addition stress of COVID — its made it completely overwhelmed," he said.

    According to Sparshu, Alberta Children's Hospital has seen a 200 per cent increase in mental health related emergency department visits in the last ten years with a particular spike during the pandemic.

    Admissions for suicide attempts have doubled since COVID-19 began, he said.

    There are now long waits for community-based supports and hospitals are backlogged.

    "Kids don't know where else to turn. Parents are desperate. So they turn to the hospitals."

    In a situation he calls "heartbreaking," Sparshu said some children and teens can wait several days in the ER for a mental health treatment bed with the average wait for a bed jumping from 10 hours to 33 hours in just two years.

    "The kids who are coming to see us are way sicker than they ever have been before. And they're not just coming with one problem they're coming with a multitude of problems," he said.

    Those complex issues can include anxiety, depression and substance use, suicide attempts and self harm. And Sparshu and his colleagues are treating children as young as six years old.

    Dr. Sterling Sparshu, president of the section of child and adolescent psychiatry with the Alberta Medical Association says children are showing up to hospital sicker -- and with more complex mental health issues -- than before the pandemic. Those problems include, anxiety, depression, self harm and suicide attempts. (CBC)

    The Alberta Medical Association and the Alberta Psychiatric Association are calling for what they describe as a "significant" increase in funding and for an overhaul of mental health system including more preventative supports in schools.

    "Collaboration and planning across many stakeholders is needed to promote early identification and timely initial treatment of students who require mental health supports. Adequate funding is also needed to support ongoing recovery and relapse prevention," Dr. Kathryn Fitch,  president of the Alberta Psychiatric Association, said in a news release.

    According to Sparshu, they're also asking for a meeting with Health Minister Jason Copping.

    "We don't just need more money thrown at the problem. But we actually need to restructure our systems. We need to be proactive in our approaches. That's a full continuum of supports including health promotion, illness prevention, early intervention and treatment." he said.

    In a statement emailed to CBC News, a spokepserson for the Associate Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions said this issue is a priority and the government is working to build a "comprehensive system that supports meaningful recovery."

    "There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions have affected the mental wellness of many Albertans, including children and youth," said press secretary Eric Engler.

    "We know there is more work to do, and we are currently participating in the creation of a cross-ministry action plan to build a comprehensive recovery-oriented system of care for all Albertans, including youth. We look forward to making further announcements to improve youth mental wellness as part of Budget 2022/23."

    If you or someone you love is struggling, AHS recommends the following resources:

    • Call the Distress Centre at 403-266-HELP (4357)
    • Call ConnecTeen at 403-264-TEEN or text 587-333-2724
    • Call the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 or text CONNECT to 686868.
    • Bullying Helpline at 1-888-456-2323
    • Call the Mental Health Helpline at 1-877-303-2642 or the addiction line at 1-866-332-2322.
    • Visit the Help in Tough Times website for more resources.
    • If in crisis call 911 or visit the closest emergency department.


    Jennifer Lee


    Jennifer Lee is a CBC News reporter based in Calgary. She worked at CBC Toronto, Saskatoon and Regina before landing in Calgary in 2002. If you have a health or human interest story to share, let her know.