Mental health advocates push for permanent Saskatoon assessment unit

A group of mothers demanding a permanent mental health assessment unit in Saskatoon were at the legislature on Tuesday to express their concerns.

The province has said it intends to close the temporary seven-bed unit at Royal University Hospital, which opened in April.

"Some of the people that I've talked to that have been in the ER prior to the mental health assessment unit will never go back. They say they'd rather be dead before they'll ever go back there," said Kathy Genest.

Her son made a recent trip to the unit and shared his experience with her.

"At first it was awful in the ER. It was chaotic and hell, but once they got him moved into the temporary mental health unit it was good, and to me that speaks volumes."

Opened in April 2018, the private seven-bed unit was supposed to stream patients suffering from mental health problems away from the crowds at Saskatchewan's busiest emergency department. 

The bulk of the money to build the existing emergency mental health assessment unit came from a $1-million donation from Les and Irene Dubé, longtime business owners and philanthropists in Saskatoon.

Lucy Bridges worked with mothers over the last couple of years to lobby government to get the temporary unit off the ground.

"The government is always skirting around the elephant in the room, which is emergency psychiatric care and ongoing care."

Bridges said her vision is to have the old RUH emergency room turned into a permanent mental health centre.

She said she hoped to hear from Minister of Health Jim Reiter that "much more money" was coming to tackle mental health. A little more than five per cent of the health budget goes to mental health. The government has said its goal is to get to seven per cent. 

Don Somers/CBC News

Another mother who spoke on Tuesday, Kathy Evans, said the provincial government should be spending the money it's getting from Ottawa.

"This government is holding back half that money per year and putting it into the next year. We have been waiting for a long time for change and it's time to put the money on the line," Evans said.

Advocates will be 'very pleased' with budget: Reiter

Reiter said during question period Tuesday that mental health advocates will be "very pleased" with next week's budget, although he did not divulge any details.

Reiter said a definitive answer on the future of the mental health assessment unit could come on budget day or within a few days after.

"The plan all along was to open it as a temporary unit until the new emergency unit in the new hospital is open. It just seems wrong to be closing a facility when there is so much need for mental health," Reiter said.

Saskatoon Health Region

The Saskatchewan Health Authority has said on average RUH emergency sees 15 mental health patients a day.

In 2017, officials said roughly 10 per cent of the 5,000 emergency mental health patients who turn up at RUH's emergency department each year leave without being treated.

Last month, health authority officials told CBC the new Jim Pattison Children's Hospital "will include private spaces for patients that require emergency mental health care."