CHEO could turn to adult hospitals as mental health cases surge

Overwhelmed by the sudden and dramatic increase in the number of young people needing mental health care, eastern Ontario's children's hospital in Ottawa could soon look to the city's other hospitals to help ease the burden.

Unprecedented demand has children's hospital seeking other options for older teens

CHEO may send youth patients to other hospitals as demand for mental health care rises

2 years ago
Duration 1:25
Joanne Lowe, vice-president of mental health and addictions for CHEO, says the children’s hospital is seeing a surge in mental health cases during the pandemic, leading to capacity issues that could see some older youth treated at other hospitals in the area.

Overwhelmed by the sudden and dramatic increase in the number of young people needing mental health care, CHEO, eastern Ontario's children's hospital in Ottawa, could soon look to the city's other hospitals to help ease the burden.

The possibility of sending older teenage patients to adult hospitals arose during discussion at a regional hospital roundtable earlier this month. It's the first time CHEO has had to consider such a measure.

"I've been involved in mental health for over 30 years and I've never seen [demand] like this, ever," said Joanne Lowe, CHEO's vice-president of mental health and addictions.

This is the next pandemic.- Joanne Lowe, CHEO

"This is the next pandemic, and the needs aren't going to end when this [COVID-19] pandemic ends."

According to CHEO, 50 per cent of all patients visiting its emergency department over the past four months have been seeking treatment for some form of mental health issue.

Lowe said clinicians are seeing more cases of depression, anxiety, drug overdoses and suicidal thoughts, but it's a surge in eating disorders that's taking up the majority of resources in CHEO's mental health unit.

Surge in eating disorders 

CHEO has 25 inpatient mental health beds, nine of which are set aside to treat patients who are refusing to eat, binge eating or purging their food. Recently, clinicians have seen the number of eating disorder patients more than triple.

"We are seeing 18 to 22 kids in hospital at one time with eating disorders, and remember, we only have nine beds," said Lowe.

She said SickKids in Toronto and McMaster Children's Hospital in Hamilton are seeing similar increases in eating disorder patients.

Lowe said once CHEO's mental health beds are full, there are eight youth spaces at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre that can be used. If those fill up, under a new transfer policy older teens can be admitted to mental health units at the Montfort, Queensway Carleton or Ottawa hospitals.

TOH willing to help

Dr. Jess Fiedorowicz, chief of the department of mental health of The Ottawa Hospital, said his unit will help treat 17-year-olds if it has the capacity.

The Ottawa Hospital's mental health unit is dealing with a shortage of doctors and nurses as some staff have been transferred to help with COVID-19 care, while others are suffering from burnout. The hospital has had to close 12 of its 95 psychiatry beds.

"We are all struggling with high numbers, but CHEO is dealing with an increase of 150 per cent," said Fiedorowicz. "They're filling up their medicine beds with mental health patients, so if we have available beds, we are open to helping CHEO decompress its numbers."

There is one significant difference in care between CHEO and adult hospitals, however: at CHEO, parents are considered caregivers and can stay with patients, provided they undergo screening for COVID-19. During the pandemic, Ottawa's other hospitals have placed much stricter limits on visitors.

If you are in crisis or know someone who is, here's where to get help:

  • Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 | 45645 (Text, 4-12 p.m. ET)
  • In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)
  • Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (Phone), Live Chat counselling at