Saskatoon

'We've gone backward': Families say urgent psychiatric care not a priority in Sask.

Families say their mentally ill loved ones aren't getting the care they deserve, from packed emergency rooms to shortages of long term care beds.

Saskatchewan Health Authority says it's dealing with 'extreme overcapacity'

Michelle Fontaine says emergency care for mentally ill patients has deteriorated since the recent closure of a specialized assessment unit in the Royal University Hospital emergency department. She says her son, Daniel, left after waiting more than 16 hours for a bed. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Daniel Fontaine hadn't slept in three days, his mania and paranoia spiraling ever faster as he paced around his parents' Saskatoon home.

"I felt everyone was watching me. I was convinced my phone, my computer were spying on me. I thought someone was coming to hurt my family," Fontaine, 34, said of the incident, which happened last month.

"I was buzzing. It was very scary."

Fontaine was still lucid enough to ask for help. He agreed to let his dad drive him to Royal University Hospital's emergency department. This began what Fontaine called a "horrific" 24-hour ordeal.

It's just one example of what his family and others say are yawning gaps in care for people with severe psychiatric illness across the province.

Daniel Fontaine called his recent experience in the Royal University Hospital emergency room "horrific." The Saskatoon man, who asked CBC News to obscure his face, was seeking help for bipolar disorder-induced paranoia. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

They say the problems aren't limited to the RUH emergency department.

Patients at Saskatoon's Dube Centre for Mental Health have been forced to sleep in the same room where patients receive electric shock therapy.

The $407-million Saskatchewan Hospital, which opened eight months ago in North Battleford to provide long-term psychiatric care, can't use all of its beds. This follows the discovery of a defective roof, elevated lead levels in the water, leaky bathroom fixtures and other issues, officials confirmed.

"There's a crisis here. If we can't treat them properly, we're going to lose a lot of people," said Kathy Genest, who was recently told her mentally ill, crystal meth-addicted son would have to wait 18 months for a bed at Saskatchewan Hospital.

Danielle Chartier, health critic for the opposition NDP, said problems in one area create a "bottleneck" in another. She said there's no comprehensive plan to deal with it all.

One start would be to follow Australia and other countries and separate emergency departments for people with psychiatric emergencies, Chartier said. She said mentally ill people "don't belong in a standard emergency room."

Health Minister Jim Reiter was not available for comment Friday.

A Saskatchewan Health Authority official said in a statement they realize long waits "can be difficult on our patients, particularly when they are not feeling well.

"We strive to minimize the time patients have to wait for a bed and have been working hard to reduce the wait."

Families of mentally ill adults are raising concerns over services in the new emergency room at Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon. (Albert Couillard/CBC)

Daniel Fontaine had been afraid to go to the RUH emergency department because of the long waits, loud noises and bright lights, but a new adult emergency room had opened Oct. 1, the same day as the new $286-million Jim Pattison Children's Hospital. Fontaine had heard about a new unit dedicated for assessing people with mental illness.

As they walked in the doors, Fontaine immediately covered his ears.

"It was a circus. That was the beginning of a horrific experience," he said.

He and his dad were told to sit in a general waiting room. His agitation increased and his mood darkened.

He said he was seen roughly seven hours later by a psychiatrist who was answering calls and texts during their brief meeting. Fontaine was sent out to the waiting room again. After 10 more hours, he fell asleep on the floor.

Fontaine said he then briefly saw a psychiatrist for a second time and was officially committed to hospital, but that he was sent back to the waiting room again and promised food.

After waiting another hour — hungry, exhausted and agitated — he called a taxi and left.

His dad found him back at their home. Since Fontaine had left after being committed as a mentally ill patient, police called the house. Fontaine's dad drove his son back, where he waited another hour and was then given a bed, 24 hours after first seeking help.

"It makes you angry. I just really believe mental health needs to be handled differently," said his mother, Michelle.

Kathy Genest's son has an anxiety disorder and drug addiction. She says the opening of new facilities at Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon and Sask Hospital in North Battleford have not improved care. (submitted by Kathy Genest)

Kathy Genest said her son, also in his 30s, may not survive an 18-month wait for a bed at Sask Hospital in North Battleford.

"We've got new, nicer looking buildings, nicer rooms, but it's not working any better. In fact, I think it's working worse," she said.

Genest and others said the government has had 10 years to act on the recommendations of its own Patient First Review. In the Oct. 2009 study, author Tony Dagnone wrote that people with mental illness "deserve to have their concerns taken seriously when they present at the emergency room … Regina and Saskatoon should explore the feasibility of 24/7 service for people experiencing a mental health crisis."

Dagnone said this approach would help everyone, easing pressure and waits for others in the general emergency departments.

The new Saskatchewan Hospital North Battleford is dealing with a faulty roof, elevated lead levels in the water and other issues. Some beds won't be usable until January. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

In 2018, a dedicated unit was set aside for psychiatric patient assessment in the RUH emergency department. Parents said they were elated.

But when the adjacent Children's Hospital opened Oct. 1 and services were rearranged, that ended. Those beds are now used for short term stays or overflow from the Dube Centre.

"We've gone backward. It's left me feeling betrayed," said Lucy Mauerhoff-Bridges, a parent of another mentally ill man.

According to the written statement from the Saskatchewan Health Authority, the mental health assessment unit at RUH was always meant to be temporary.

It said the average wait time to get a bed at the Dube Centre in October was 21 hours, roughly the same as six months earlier. However, there have been periods of "extreme overcapacity" in the emergency rooms in recent weeks, it stated. It confirmed patients at the Dube Centre have been forced to sleep in the electric shock therapy room as recently as the end of September.

"The safety and well-being of anyone in our care is a very high priority. If individuals or families raise any concerns related to their care experience, we take these matters very seriously," read the statement.

It said privacy laws prevent officials from discussing individual cases. Officials encouraged concerned families to contact the authority's quality of care co-ordinator.

"It's not always easy to predict. We experience surges in patients from time to time," said Colleen Quinlan, an SHA executive director who responsibilities include the Dube Centre.

Vikki Smart, an SHA executive director responsible for Sask Hospital, said the unit closed by water damage should be open again by early January. She said anyone with concerns about the wait times can also go back to their psychiatrist to ensure their case is prioritized correctly.

"It really depends on where they fall on the wait list and the urgency," Smart said.

Mauerhoff-Bridges said it's possible officials don't know how the current system affects families. She wants to organize a round-table event bringing together patients, families, doctors, nurses, police, administrators and provincial politicians.

"There are solutions. Let's figure it out," she said.

As for Daniel Fontaine, his condition is currently stable and he's back at home with his parents, but he said he's again scared to return to hospital.

"I'm purely disgusted," he said. "I can't do that again. I don't have the strength."

About the Author

Jason Warick

Reporter

Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.

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