Nova Scotia

Youth get faster access to mental health, addictions help at IWK

Patients needing help with mental health and addictions are now getting appointments right away when they call the IWK Health Centre in Halifa, most of which are filled within 22 days. It's a major change from where the hospital was just eight years ago.

IWK has overhauled its approach, which is resulting in much shorter waiting times for patients

Dr. Sharon Clark, left, and Karen Carey of the IWK Health Centre's mental health and addictions program, say a shift in their care model has been successful in improving wait times. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

Young people needing mental health and addictions help at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax no longer have to wait to get an appointment.

The IWK can now see emergency cases the same day, which covers children at immediate risk of harming themselves or others. It sees almost all urgent cases within four business days, which would be children at risk of harm, but not immediate risk.

For all other patients, the average wait is 22 days.

"It's really exciting actually. It's a reflection of so much hard work over the past eight years, and a really focused attention on trying to understand what's most important to families," said psychologist Dr. Sharon Clark with the IWK mental health and addictions program.

"I think now we're appreciating [the] expertise that families bring to the table."

Trying something new

Under the old model, Clark said they had a wait list of more than 1,000 children waiting for services for upwards of 20 months before they were able to even book an appointment.

Now, as soon as someone calls the central referral department, they're booked for an appointment. They know exactly when they're coming in and who they'll see, Clark said.

"That makes it so much easier for parents to co-ordinate their work schedules, and everything else that requires them to be able to be present for those appointments and be really thoughtful about what planning will come next," Clark said.

In the past, those first meetings were more about diagnosing symptoms. Now, staff draw a plan to get to the family's goals.

This means engaging families before they've even walked in the door.

A video created by the IWK describes the new process, called a choice appointment, that families enter when they first seek mental health help.

 "We have an active conversation with the families and actually ask them to think before they get there about what things would be important to them to talk about," Clark said.

This gives young people and their families something productive to do while waiting for their appointment, and speeds up their movement in whatever direction that's best for them.

What this means for families

The changes and decreased wait times have been a pleasant surprise to patients and their families.

"They're pleased. Especially the last few years, there's been a lot of, 'Oh, we didn't realize we were going to get in so soon,'" said Karen Carey, access navigator and one of the people at the other end of the intake phone line.

Carey said during that first phone call, staff make sure to provide information and tools for patients to access while they're waiting. For some people, those tools or a connection to a community resource might be enough, and they won't need to have a choice appointment.

More mental health workers

Beginning in 2017, the province set aside money to hire dozens of new mental health workers. That included 10 new full-time positions at the IWK.

Clark said the staff increases alone haven't been responsible for the improvements — it's the new philosophy and reorganization of how the hospital runs its mental health service.

If you are in distress or considering suicide, there are places to turn for support. Nova Scotia's Mental Health Mobile Crisis Team can be reached at 1-888-429-8167 or 902-429-8167 or Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868. You can also go to the nearest hospital emergency room.

With files from Shaina Luck