What came out of the standing committee hearing caused additional alarm. Instead of hearing how the strategy is moving forward, MLAs just the opposite. We are facing a crisis – largely because of a dire shortage of psychiatrists.
Parents watching the proceedings from the gallery were horrified. Children in the school system, who need early intervention before symptoms worsen or problems arise, are at risk. Parents are demanding assurances about the safety of their children.
Dr. Heather Keizer, the province’s chief mental health and addictions officer, didn’t use the word ‘crisis’ before the Standing Committee on Health and Wellness, but that is exactly the message that parents heard. They have good reason for concern. Suicide rates on P.E.I. are alarming and some tragedies can be prevented.
As soon as Dr. Keizer was done, parents gathered to prepare a response for the province. “As parents of children currently being treated by the mental healthcare system, we were horrified to hear the chief psychiatrist of the province say that the system is so understaffed she can’t guarantee patient safety.” The statement accused the province of gambling with the lives of children and demanded immediate action to ensure their children’s safety.
Dr. Keizer had other alarming news for MLAs. Emergency rooms in P.E.I. are “extraordinarily short-handed” when it comes to treating patients with acute mental illness. The major shortage of psychiatrists is putting pressure on the remaining psychiatrists working in those ERs.
Dr. Keizer suggested there are higher rates of mental illness in P.E.I. than other provinces, such as Ont. where she had previously worked. Mental illness cases on P.E.I. are more common, more severe and more regularly show up in Island emergency rooms than in Ontario.
While the province should have 15 psychiatrists on-call for ER duty, there are 4.7. The numbers have inevitably led to extensive wait times for Island patients in need of acute mental health and addictions treatment. And Keizer confirmed that it’s conceivable that someone who is suicidal could be discharged from an ER without seeing a psychiatrist.
The province is trying hard to implement its new strategy unveiled last fall. Despite those good intentions, the critical shortage of psychiatrists - caused largely by retirements and attrition - is making implementation a severe challenge.
Health Minister Robert Henderson admits that remuneration isn’t comparable to other jurisdictions so it’s difficult to recruit these specialists to P.E.I. He hopes to review the pay scales and get to a number that makes P.E.I. more competitive. While there are no easy solutions, every effort must be made to attract more psychiatrists.
The need for long-term planning and investment in mental health and addictions is needed, Dr. Keizer told MLAs.
That’s a laudable strategy, but it’s the immediate self-harm danger to Islanders - young and old - that is of critical concern. It’s an alarming crack in our health care system, which seems to be widening daily.