Kitchener-Waterloo·In Depth

Wait times for some mental health services up to 1 year long in Waterloo-Wellington

Lengthy wait lists and wait times for a number of local mental health services mean that people in Waterloo region and Wellington County can spend months or even a year waiting for help, according to numbers provided to CBC News by the Canadian Mental Health Association Waterloo-Wellington.
Wait lists for some mental health services in Waterloo region have hundreds of people on them, and in some cases, average waits of more than a year. That's according to numbers provided to CBC News by the Canadian Mental Health Association for Waterloo-Wellington. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Wait lists for some mental health services in Waterloo region have hundreds of people on them, and in some cases, average waits of more than a year. That's according to numbers provided to CBC News by the Canadian Mental Health Association for Waterloo-Wellington.

The numbers from the local CMHA branch describe wait lists and wait times for services coordinated through the mental health helpline Here24/7. Some services are provided in-house by CMHA while others are offered through partner agencies in the community, and all are offered either for free or at a low cost. 

As of Jan. 13, 2020, 602 people were on a waitlist for adult mental health counselling and treatment. The average wait time was 118 days.

Meanwhile, the waitlist for community psychiatry had 734 people on it, waiting an average of 112 days. 

A program known as Skills for Safer Living, which is a group for people with recurring thoughts of suicide, had 347 waiting, with an average wait time approaching one year — at 334 days.

And "mental health adult intensive services," an umbrella category that refers to a handful of community support programs for those with significant mental health issues, had 286 people waiting for an average wait time of 559 days.

The average wait time refers to the average days waited between the start of service wait and removal from the service wait list. 

Wait times shift daily

Alison De Muy, a director with the local CMHA branch, cautioned that wait times can shift day to day. She said staffers also triage people and move those with urgent needs to a higher spot on the list.

Still, De Muy called the situation "frustrating."

"We never want to feel that we have to wait for people to get ill enough to access the care that they need, but unfortunately we're in a system where the demand far exceeds the supply," she said. 

DeMuy noted that call volumes have steadily crept up since Here 24/7 was established and that the help line currently receives about 5,000 calls every month.

"We're not seeing a reduction at all in the level of need," she said.  

Despite the wait times for some services, De Muy emphasized anyone in crisis can get help immediately through the emergency room or through crisis workers with Here 24/7.

She said people should also still put their names on the wait list if they need help. 

'Strange dichotomy'

Those who can afford to pay out of pocket or who have benefits or an employment assistance program can often see a service provider relatively quickly, De Muy said.

It's those who don't, and who need free or low-cost services, who end up waiting. 

That point was echoed by Abe Oudshoorn, an assistant professor of nursing at Western University cross-appointed in the department of psychiatry.

Because counselling isn't covered by the public health system, he said the result is an inequality between those who can see someone immediately and those who get stuck waiting.

"You ... get this strange dichotomy," said Oudshoorn.

"There are lots of counselors in the community who have availability to see someone tomorrow who can pay for it, but for those who require the public system, that's a huge wait."

Province says it's aware of problem

A spokesperson for the Waterloo-Wellington LHIN, which provides funding to CMHA, declined an interview for this story and directed requests to CMHA and the province.

Ontario's Ministry of Health provided a statement to CBC News, saying officials could not comment on wait times in Waterloo-Wellington and that the "legacy" LHINs are responsible for planning and funding local health services.

The statement went on to say the province has identified mental health and addictions issues as a major problem facing families.

"Challenges such as a lack of access to mental health and addictions services, inconsistent data collection and reporting and fragmentation of services are critical to addressing wait times and improving Ontarian's access to the high-quality mental health and addiction services they need," the statement said.

The province said it is working with stakeholders to address these challenges.

 

If you are in crisis or wish to discuss whether CMHA has the right service for you, call Here 24/7: 1-844-437-3247 (HERE 247).

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