'I just really wanted some help': Royal Alexandra Hospital to open 24/7 mental health hub

A 24-hour mental health hub will open at the Royal Alexandra Hospital later this year.

'It's not good enough that we deliver a lot of service...if people can't find their way to the right service'

Blake Loates, a mental health advocate, is an ambassador for the Access 24-7 mental health care program which will run out of the Royal Alexandra Hospital. (CBC/Alexandra Zabjek)

Blake Loates knows the city's mental health system.

She is smart, well-educated, and spent years working as a psychiatric nurse in Edmonton. She also has bipolar II disorder and has been receiving mental health treatment since she was 14.

Still, there have been nights — when the anxiety or paranoia would take over, when she knew her brain wasn't working as it should — that she didn't know where to turn and ended up in a hospital emergency room.

"I just really wanted some help and was discharged because I wasn't in imminent danger of hurting myself but I didn't have the therapeutic services that I needed," Loates said this week.

"I didn't have the psychiatrist; I didn't have any sort of connections."

"I just really wanted some help and was discharged because I wasn't in imminent danger of hurting myself.- Blake Loates

At 37, Loates is now a photographer and prominent mental health advocate in the city. Her Facebook Messenger, Instagram feed and texts are often filled with people looking for help.

That's why she felt overwhelmed when she learned a 24-7 central hub for mental health care and referrals is being created at the Royal Alexandra Hospital.

"I started to cry. I was so excited. This is something that Edmonton needs, so desperately."

Access 24 hours a day

The Addiction and Mental Health Access 24/7 hub is scheduled to open later this year at the Royal Alex's Anderson Hall.

But the idea for the service has been percolating for years, said Mark Snaterse, who leads the addictions and mental health program for AHS in Edmonton.

Patients and their families have long told health bureaucrats they've been passed from one service provider to the next, having to tell their stories multiple times before finding the right program, but sometimes giving up before that happens, Snaterse said. 

The idea is for a team of mental health professionals to be located in one space, 24 hours a day.

The team will have doctors and psychologists, but also staff with an intimate knowledge of community and health care programs. There will also be peer support workers to offer advice from the perspective of someone who's been through similar experiences.

"It's not good enough that we deliver a lot of service. And it's not good enough that we care for a lot of people, if people can't find their way into the right service for them," Snaterse said.

"For many years, we haven't necessarily been behaving as a co-ordinated system. In fact, I've had a hard time referring to our services as a system, [which] implies there's coordination and it's easy to navigate."

Loates and Mark Snaterse, who leads the addictions and mental health program for AHS in Edmonton, say a central hub for mental health care in Edmonton is long overdue. (Supplied/Kyle Polanski)

AHS has about 3,000 staff in the Edmonton area who work in mental health and addictions.

But it's not always easy for people to connect with them. The grandparents of a teenager recently charged with stabbing a city bus driver said they had been trying to seek appropriate care for the teen for a long time. 

Snaterse acknowledged the Royal Alex has many patients who have very high-needs, and the Access 24/7 may not be able to provide their care.

"There might be people who come in medically unstable, they might need detox, they might have a delirium, they may need to be medically stabilized," he said. "We'll make sure there's a clear path to get them to the (emergency department).

NDP MLA David Shepherd shared his own experiences with finding help for mental health issues at a press conference about the opening of the Access 24/7 clinic. (Supplied/CBC)

The centralization of patient intake isn't exactly new, but Snaterse said Access 24-7 will set a new bar in Canada.

The Alberta government is funding 20 new staff for the clinic, while other mental health care workers will be shifted from other locations.

MLA's health crisis

NDP MLA David Shepherd shared his own story of a mental health crisis 13 years ago. He struggled with his mental health for years before reaching a crisis point, he said.

His family doctor had moved out of town, and Shepherd said it was hard to figure out where to go. He eventually found an outpatient program at the University of Alberta Hospital, but the hours were limited and there were no guarantees of seeing a doctor.

"It was a challenge even for me to reach out for help in the first place," he said.

"I was raised in a community where you didn't talk about mental health or those issues of emotional and mental struggles. 

"They were a matter of faith; you sought counselling there. It took a lot for me to even get to the point where I was even able to ask for help."

Shepherd eventually went to the clinic.

"It started me on what was, frankly, a long journey to finding stability and wellness," he said.