Ending lengthy wait times requires more than just hiring more doctors: psychiatrist

Dr. Sara Dungavell, a Saskatoon-based psychiatrist, says hiring more doctors might not be the silver bullet answer to the mental health access problems facing so many youth.

Many people who need psychological, social support stuck waiting to see medical doctors, says psychiatrist

Dr. Sara Dungavell says hiring more counsellors and psychologists could help with lengthy wait lists for psychiatrists. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

For Quinn Prior, the feeling of helplessness is all too familiar.

The Grade 10 student has clinical depression and severe anxiety. She says it took a lot of courage to decide to reach out for help, but that was quickly replaced with frustration at a system she says is failing youth like her with mental health issues. 

She says when she first entered the system, she was told she could wait up to two years to see a psychiatrist. She was able to jump that line only because her mental health got so bad she went to the emergency room and was admitted to the Dubé Centre in Saskatoon. 

"It got to a crisis point before I could get adequate help," Prior said.

Provincial officials say they are working to fill two psychiatric vacancies in Saskatoon and that could help the problem. But for children and youth like Prior, the wait can be excruciating. 

"It makes me angry, not just for myself not receiving adequate care, but for all the other kids who need help but can't get it or are too afraid to ask because that's a huge thing with youth, being able to ask someone to help," she said. 

Alternatives to psychiatrists

Saskatchewan's Children's Advocate raised the alarm this week about the two-year wait times for children seeking psychiatric care and since then the NDP has raised the issue in question period. 

But Dr. Sara Dungavell, a Saskatoon-based psychiatrist, says hiring more doctors might not be the silver bullet answer to the mental health access problems facing so many youth. 

"Just throwing more psychiatrists at the system doesn't help," Dungavell said. 

Grade 10 student Quinn Prior says it took a trip to the emergency room and then the Dubé Centre to get in to see a psychiatrist. (Don Somers/CBC )

She says even bigger cities with more psychiatrists per capita still have wait times. She says the real answer may be funding other mental health care professionals.

"We are always going to have people who fundamentally, biologically need the expertise of a biological doctor, but right now we have so many people with psychological and social struggles that they need support with and they are waiting in this long line to get a biological psychiatrist when they could be seen and supported through a lot of psychological and social supports," she said. 

In her own practice, she says, she could use the help of psychiatric nurse or a social worker to do initial assessments, and talk to family doctors about prescribing certain drugs. 

Counsellor helpful

After Prior went through her stay at Dubé, she was eventually connected with a counsellor who she says helped immensely. 

Now she is speaking out, hoping not only to help others young people who are struggling with the stigma of mental illness, but to lobby for change in the system she says is difficult to access and navigate. 

"I reached out for help because that's what everyone was telling me to do, and I was really hopeful but I just overestimated the kind of care I would receive," she said.