Prince Edward Island mental health services stretched

Hillsborough Hospital called antiquated, substandard

Jim Day
Published on January 7, 2014

Margaret Kennedy, director of mental health and addictions with Health P.E.I., says huge gaps exist in residential and financial services for people with mental health issues. Kennedy also feels the Hillsborough Hospital, pictured here behind her, is an antiquated facility. 

©Guardian photo by Heather Taweel

Hillsborough Hospital, the province's in-patient psychiatric facility, is not getting the job done, says the director of mental health and addictions with Health P.E.I.

"Hillsborough is a very antiquated building and it does not meet the standards of care that are required,'' says Margaret Kennedy.

However, the broader problem is not so much the hospital, as the entire mental health care system in the province, stresses Kennedy.

Hillsborough Hospital has 69 beds with five units: one for patients with acute psychiatric conditions, one for seniors with psychiatric conditions, one for people with developmental delays and psychiatric conditions, one rehab unit for people who have stabilized but need more attention before being discharged, and another unit for neurotrauma patients.

Every day, the hospital is filled to capacity. So too is the acute psychiatric unit (Unit 9) at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

So where do people who should be in Hillsborough Hospital or Unit 9 go when those places have no available beds?

Often, people end up staying in the emergency department. Kennedy has heard of people staying in the emergency department at the QEH for up to 10 days with an acute psychiatric condition.

"They could be waiting for a spot at Hillsborough Hospital or Unit 9 and there are blockages at both places,'' she says.

Others may be in the community not accessing treatment at all.

"They may have given up,'' says Kennedy.

The capacity problem at Hillsborough Hospital made the news earlier this week when Judge Nancy Orr felt she had no choice but to sentence a man to jail to protect him from staying out in the bitter cold after he was refused a spot at the Hillsborough Hospital.

The judge said the situation resulted from major miscommunication between government agencies. A bed is now available for the man at the hospital, but correctional services have filed an incident report.

Kennedy could not speak about this specific case but acknowledged the problem of a constantly packed pyschiatric facility is serious.

"There is never an empty bed,'' she says.

"It is not once in awhile. It is a pattern.''

Kennedy says very few people are discharged from most of the units at the Hillsborough Hospital.

That needs to change, she says.

"So people are going there and they are stuck there because there is nowhere else for them to go for the appropriate care that they need,'' she says.

Kennedy says a gap exists in residential services and other treatment services in the province for people with mental health issues, developmental issues, homeless issues and behavioral issues.

Many people staying at Hillsborough, she notes, do not have psychiatric conditions but cannot be discharged because they do not have a place to go.

She says planning is needed for people staying in the Hillsborough Hospital and Unit 9 at the QEH who don't have psychiatric conditions and are not having their needs met.

"I think there needs to be an examination of policies in other government departments on housing and financial (services) to make it possible for people to get discharged,'' says Kennedy.

This would get people into more appropriate settings while opening up room at Unit 9 and Hillsborough Hospital for people who should be there, she adds.

Kennedy estimates the province only allocates four to five per cent of its health budget towards mental health and addictions. The Mental Health Commission of Canada recommends seven to nine per cent of total health-care expenditure be spent on mental health care alone.

"We're well below that,'' she says.

The provincial government recently announced plans to spend $1.2 million in new initiatives to deal with prescription drug addiction in the province and has appointed a specialist to come up with a long-term strategy to improve mental health and addictions services.

Reid Burke, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association in P.E.I., says a significant investment in resources is needed.

Support to help people manage their mental health illnesses is lacking across the board in P.E.I., notably in housing, employment and education, he says.

"Huge numbers of people are struggling with poor mental health,'' says Burke.

"We need a strategy to deal with that.''