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'We need the money:' Keizer slams P.E.I. government for diverting mental health funds

In this file photo, Dr. Heather Keizer, P.E.I medical director of mental health, speaks during an announcement about youth and mental illness in Charlottetown.
In this file photo, Dr. Heather Keizer, P.E.I medical director of mental health, speaks during an announcement about youth and mental illness in Charlottetown.

CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. - Prince Edward Island’s chief mental health and addictions officer slammed the province’s handling of mental health services during a public speech last week, calling the situation in P.E.I. a “crisis.”

During a ceremony honouring a mental health nurse with an award, Dr. Heather Keizer used her opportunity at the microphone to criticize government for diverting new federal mental health funding into the education system.

That money is badly needed in the health system, she said, which is cracking – literally – under the pressure of increasing demand.

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Keizer noted a recent “severe infrastructure failure” at the province’s only psychiatric facility, the Hillsborough Hospital in Charlottetown, where a male patient broke down the door to his room. This put many staff and patients at “high risk.”

“We all know how scary it was to see the safe and secure room door break under the force of an angry and very ill forensic patient,” Keizer said in her speech.

“The burden of psychiatry and mental health patients in PCH (Prince County Hospital) and QEH (Queen Elizabeth Hospital) are at persistently escalating numbers and are not coming down – looking epidemic.”

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She says the month of May has seen an erosion of psychiatric services already struggling to meet the increasing demand, including the resignation of the province’s only geriatric psychiatrist and the loss of all adult psychiatry coverage in outpatients.

Despite this, new federal money earmarked specifically for mental health is going to the department of education for new public health nurses to be placed in Island schools.

She noted this money – a total of $400,000 this year, which will double every year over the next five years – could have paid for a mobile mental heath crisis team, a provincewide tele-health on-call psychiatry service or designated transitional teams for patients at the highest risk.

Instead, this mental health money was allocated to education with no consultation with the co-directors of the province’s mental health and addictions division.

“Will these nurses increase suicide response in the community like a mobile mental health crisis unit will? Will they provide service to our high-risk offenders transitioning back into society? Will they make Unit 3 more safe for our psychiatry nurses who are dealing with homicidal patients on a daily basis?” Keizer asked.

“This appropriation of mental health monies may have been politically expedient and may well have been done with the best of intentions, but without input of those of us who work daily on the front lines, it has been highly unfortunate and may well increase our current crisis in mental health and addictions.”

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See Thursday's print edition and for the second part of our investigation into mental health services in Prince Edward Island.

After meeting with leadership and staff at PCH and QEH, Keizer said they all agreed to be more vocal about the “dire need” within the system.

“Our patients and colleagues need a voice,” she said.

“We need moral and social support, but we also need more than political promises. We need the money.”

Health Minister Robert Henderson, who was sitting front and centre to hear Keizer’s speech, said he is aware of the pressures in the system but disagreed that it is at crisis levels.

“I think that is probably a little elaborate. There is an urgent need of resources to meet the demands of Islanders,” he told The Guardian.

He noted there are plans for a new Hillsborough Hospital complex in the five-year capital plan.

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Meanwhile, government communications reacted swiftly, sending an unsolicited list of “clarifications/context” to The Guardian regarding Keizer’s speech.

This statement noted the province’s recent mental health and addictions strategy did commit to establishing a mobile mental health crisis unit. Health P.E.I. has also recruited a new full-time psychiatrist, Dr. Nachnani, who will add to on-call psychiatry services in outpatients as well as in-patient and community-based care when he arrives in July.

As for the federal money going to education, government says the mental health and addictions strategy did identify increased supports for children and youth as one of its main pillars, “which is consistent with the approach to increase mental health supports within our school systems.”

With files from The Guardian’s Jim Day.

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