Wait times up for Edmonton kids needing mental health services

Children in Edmonton are waiting longer than children anywhere else in the province to get the mental health services they need, according to the latest numbers from Alberta Health Services.

Edmonton children waiting longer than children anywhere else in Alberta

(Paulius Brazauskas/Shutterstock)

Children in Edmonton are waiting longer than children anywhere else in the province to get the mental health services they need, according to the latest numbers from Alberta Health Services.

The Performance Measure Update shows that for the three-month period between April and June of this year, only 41 per cent of children in the Edmonton zone needing mental health treatment received it within 30 days of a referral.

That's down sharply from the same period in 2015, when 94 per cent of children in the Edmonton area saw a therapist within 30 days.

The provincial numbers, and those from the Edmonton and Calgary zones have all deteriorated from last year "due to increases in demand and staff shortages," the report said. But "the most significant decline can be seen in the Edmonton zone."

In Edmonton, demand increased "with no corresponding enhancement to services," it added.

Mark Snaterse, AHS executive director of addiction and mental health for the Edmonton zone, said the increasing numbers are in part due to more awareness around the importance of children's mental wellness, leading to the identification of kids at risk at an earlier age. But the economic downturn is also taking a toll, he said.

"There are more stressors on the family dynamic and I think that is creating stress load for kids that we probably haven't seen before," said Snarterse.

The report also said provincial numbers and those in the north zone were affected by the May wildfires in Fort McMurray. The wildfires forced the evacuation of Fort McMurray and temporary closures of the city's hospital and mental health clinic.

On average, approximately 4,000 children received referrals over the past few years, said Snarterse, but that number could be as high as 6,000 by the end of 2016/17.

The AHS target is for 80 per cent of those referred to receive treatment within 30 days.

New clinic, more mental health staff

The introduction of additional community supports at the cost of about $4.5-million will help improve wait times, said Snarterse, with at total of between 30 - 35 new therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists being hired in the Edmonton zone.

Those employees will staff a new children's addiction and mental health clinic set to open within the next month on the south side. The Rutherford Clinic will be up and fully running in about seven months.

The Stollery Children's Hospital will see additional mental health staff while more community therapists will be placed in high schools, said Snarterse.

The report notes children who wait longer for mental health services are less likely to attend their first appointment.

Michael Janz, chair of the Edmonton Public School Board, said there are numerous mental health supports available to students. The Mental Health First Aid certification offers training to staff to identify students in need of intervention. Mental health therapists and various programs are also available.

"I think this is going to become more and more a priority for our provincial and federal governments to address especially as we see greater instances of refugee newcomers like the Syrians or as we have other consequences like the Fort McMurray wildfires," he said. "More stress and anxiety for adults and family creates more stress and anxiety for children and we want to be there to help teach kids to be resilient."

While Calgary access also declined, 72 per cent of kids are still getting the services they need in under a month. The provincial percentage dropped from 85 to 75 percent.