Up to 70% of Manitoba ER patients need mental health services: psychologist

Most of the people who use Manitoba's emergency rooms are in need of mental health services, says a Winnipeg psychologist, and the number available is less than half of the national average.

Manitoba has 19 psychologists per 100,000 people, less than half of national average

A heavy investment in clinical psychologists should net health-care savings over time, says the director of Clinc Psychology Manitoba. (CBC News)

Most of the people who use Manitoba's emergency rooms are in need of mental health services, says a Winnipeg psychologist, and the number available is less than half of the national average.

Up to 70 per cent of people who present themselves at an emergency room not only need physical care, but may need longer-term mental health care, said Dr. Rehman Abdulrehman, the director of Clinic Psychology Manitoba.

"I think it's a really sad state for health care because what we need to realize is that our mental and physical health are tied together. And addressing our behavioural health, which is what psychologists do, has an impact on our physical health," he said.

The most recent statistics show that Manitoba has 19 clinical psychologists for every 100,000 people, said Abdulrehman. That's less than half of the national average of 49 per 100,000.

The review of the province's health-care system by consultant Dr. David Peachey highlighted the gross lack of access to timely mental health care and recommended investing in more positions for clinical psychologists who should be more involved in general patient care.

To Abdulrehman, this is a no-brainer.

"One in five — and this is a really conservative number — individuals at any given time, during any given year, will struggle with a mental health difficulty. When we look at the experience of a mental health difficulty over the course of a lifetime, that increases substantially.

"So we're talking about the majority of people, right? And the reason behind that is as long as we're human beings, and we have a brain, we have mental health," he said.

"The reasons that we make the choices that we make, including with our physical health … those are all behavioural health issues. And psychologists are really well-positioned to [help deal with] that."

While the renewed focus on mental health and the money it could save is a welcome one, psychologists have been calling for change through several successive provincial governments, said Abdulrehman. 

"Even under the NDP government … they were supposed to increase the number of psychologists, and they just never did that. And when we approached them about that, they simply said that it wasn't something they heard was an important factor from their constituents."

Abdulrehman cautioned, however, that simply hiring more psychologists won't solve the problem.

"The idea here is that we have psychologists at the front end and at the back end [of a health care diagnosis]. So not everybody's going to need the services of an expert in mental health, but it's good to have an assessment, and that's where psychologists really shine."

Plan is coming: Province

The province says they are aware of the recommendation in the Peachey report and are currently in the planning stages of increasing support for public access to psychologists, along with a preventative services plan.

"While psychology is critical to the delivery of mental health services it is also incredibly important to other services delivered in the community," said Jeanette Edwards of Shared Heath Services.

"Expanding the role of psychologists within primary care is an important aspect of the work underway to develop a clinical and preventive services plan for the province."

Edwards said the province is consulting with clinical leaders and doctors to develop a "strategic mental health and addictions plan."

With files from Information Radio