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Mental health system in London bracing for summer of pain

London's mental health care system is so stretched, the city's largest hospital is asking psychiatrists to work extra shifts and look after more patients, according to an internal document obtained by CBC News.

A memo sent to psychiatrists asks them to consider taking extra shifts and patients to relieve pressure

The London Health Sciences Centre's Victoria Hospital and Children's Hospital in London, Ont. (Dave Chidley/CBC)

London's mental health care system is so stretched, the city's largest hospital is asking psychiatrists to work extra shifts and look after more patients, a memo obtained by CBC News reveals. 

And the space crunch won't be solved before the fall at the earliest, according to the email sent to London Health Sciences Centre psychiatrists. 

"As many of you are aware, the LHSC Mental Health Care program continues to experience a demand for acute mental health services that has challenged the capacity of existing services," the email from senior management begins. 

The subject line reads "Urgent need for additional psychiatric coverage - LHSC Inpatient Mental Health." 

The memo is addressed to psychiatrists at the London Health Sciences Centre and St. Joseph's Health Care and comes at a time when administrators are actively looking for eight new psychiatrists for the inpatient unit. 

"We need to be proactive in our planning ... We know the summer is going to be a time when things are going to be potentially tight in terms of coverage," said Dr. Sarah Jarmain, the interim co-chief of psychiatry at LHSC in an interview with CBC News.

Jarmain confirmed that the email was sent to psychiatrists. 

The inpatient unit is "significantly over capacity," the memo confirms, with large numbers of admitted patients waiting in the ER or waiting to be transferred to Parkwood's mental health program. 

The LHSC has recently opened 24 new adult mental health beds and received with it funding to hire more doctors -- but that recruitment process takes time, Jarmain said. 

In fact, at a time when there's a shortage of available psychiatrists across the province and the country, LHSC is trying to hire eight psychiatrists — five to staff the beds, plus three to fill vacancies. 

"Across Canada and Ontario, there are increasing concerns about the number of psychiatrists available to meet the growing needs for mental health and addiction services," Jarmain said. "We have an aging demographic within psychiatry and we have a stagnant number of psychiatrists who are being trained." 

The internal memo calls on psychiatrists to:

  • Take on two to four additional inpatients
  • Cover for their colleagues who go on holidays
  • Remain the main psychiatrist for a patient who is admitted into hospital. 

The memo also asks physicians to keep an eye out for recent graduates or community psychiatrists who want to work temporarily at the hospital. 

"Locally, I've been pleased with the number of inquires we've had to job postings," Jarmain said. "London is an attractive place to come and live." 

The LHSC is reviewing how it approaches mental health care, said Julie Trpkovski, the hospital's vice president of mental health, emergency services and corporate access and flow. 

"One of the things we want to stress to our community is that we're very focused on working with the community to understand the needs of our patients and we're very committed to redesigning our system to make sure our patients get timely access for mental health services," Trpkovski. "We're focused on quality and safety and that our patients are getting the care they need." 

The hospital is trying to rebuild the system to ensure better care, she added. 

About the Author

Kate Dubinski

Reporter/Editor

Kate Dubinski is a radio and digital reporter with CBC News in London, Ont. You can email her at kate.dubinski@cbc.ca.