Alberta's mental health system 'cracking at the seams,' says co-author of review

Three years after reviewing mental health treatment in Alberta, the report’s co-author says the system remains overwhelmed and in crisis, with many patients “in desperation” searching for help.

Province says it's trying to make improvements, but acknowledges 'more work needs to be done'

"We are incrementally dealing with a crisis that has moved way beyond the capacity of our current resources," says, David Swann, a Liberal MLA and co-author of a mental health review in Alberta. (Reid Southwick/CBC)

Three years after reviewing mental health treatment in Alberta, the report's co-author says the system remains overwhelmed and in crisis, with many patients "in desperation" searching for help.

David Swann, a Liberal MLA and co-chair of a committee that studied the mental health and addictions systems, says the NDP government has done more to improve addictions services than any previous government, from more treatment spaces to new safe consumption sites.

But Swann says mental health care continues to fall short.

"We are incrementally dealing with a crisis that has moved way beyond the capacity of our current resources," he said.

"Almost everybody I speak to in the medical and social side that are dealing with these issues say they're overwhelmed. It's not getting better."

Health Minister Sarah Hoffman says there are more than 100 initiatives underway across the province to implement the recommendations from the review. She says the NDP government has nearly doubled funding on mental health and addiction support from $48 million annually before it was elected, to $87 million in the current fiscal year.

"I'm really proud of the progress that we've made, but there is absolutely more that needs to be done," Hoffman said.

Stories have emerged in recent days that exposed gaps in mental health support.

A 22-year-old man with autism spent eight days in a Calgary emergency room waiting for an inpatient bed he never received. His mother had him discharged after learning he could be waiting for another two weeks.

A Calgary woman in her 20s told CBC News she's in a constant "merry-go-round" looking for mental health treatment, only to end up in emergency departments because she feels she has nowhere else to go.

In the last fiscal year, Calgary emergency rooms saw almost 30,000 visits from patients seeking mental health care. Health officials say those numbers are rising.

Hoffman says the government is trying to address the problem. She says the province has placed some focus on early intervention for people who need care, including an additional $3.3 million in the Calgary area for outpatient mental health clinics.

Among other steps, the province has also boosted funding for schools to bring in therapists and other help, as well as new funds for the Canadian Mental Health Association in Calgary to expand its recovery college, peer support and addictions treatment.

Report completed in 2015

Shortly after forming government, Premier Rachel Notley commissioned a four-member panel to review Alberta's mental health and addictions systems.

The final report, completed late 2015, called for expanded treatment, including better training for family doctors to help patients early before their conditions get worse. It said patients in poverty should get access to housing, social services and other assistance while they get mental health treatment.

Among other recommendations, it also called for more funding. Swann says national benchmarks show provinces should spend at least nine per cent of their health care budgets on mental health. He says it's less than six per cent in Alberta.

"We have a very complex society today that is creating illness faster than we're able to deal with, whether it's mental illness or addiction," Swann said.

"If we don't start getting more appropriate, timely and effective resources, we're going to see much more suffering and much more cost to a system that is already cracking at the seams."