Dr. Tamara Hinz says losing one-third of youth psychiatric inpatient hospital beds in Saskatchewan has taken a toll on the staff at Saskatoon's unit and on the patients' families.
A 10-bed Prince Albert unit stopped admitting patients in June after the lone child psychiatrist retired. There are two other 10-bed units in the province, in Saskatoon and in Regina.
"We've seen a steadily growing number of kids from Prince Albert and areas north," Hinz, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, said.
Hinz said youth are admitted to hospital for mental health reasons such as serious thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts, psychosis, mania or eating disorders.
She posted on Twitter Tuesday night about how her latest 14-day stint at Saskatoon's inpatient unit was more busy and exhausting, as workload and flow have been affected. She said the logistics of helping young northern patients are more complicated.
"How are they going to get back home? That question has taken hospital staff an entire day to sort out, because you're dealing with families who live many hours away," she said, noting accommodations, finances and transportation create barriers to care.
She said this shift in care is stressful for families already in a difficult situation.
"By very definition, almost, if a child is admitted to our unit there is a family in crisis, so on top of that now you have a child who may be receiving care hundreds of kilometres away."
NDP grades province 'F' on recruitment
NDP mental health and addictions critic Danielle Chartier called on the province to act on the issue, saying access to timely psychiatric care and other mental health services for youth has long been an issue in the province.
In 2017, Saskatchewan's children's advocate raised concerns about two-year wait times for children seeking psychiatric care. That same year, Health Minister Jim Reiter said the province was actively working to hire more psychiatrists.
"I would give them an F [on recruitment]. We have a closed inpatient unit in one of the province's larger cities that serves as a hub as a north," Chartier said.
She pointed to the suicide crisis among youth in the north. Last December, Saskatchewan's provincial auditor's report found suicide rates in the northwest region of the province exceeded the provincial average by nearly 50 per cent.
"Kids who put up their hands and say I need help, those supports aren't readily available," Chartier said.
She said recruitment isn't easy, but needs to happen now.
"We have huge challenges here in the province around mental health and addictions and leaving children under served or not served at all will just continue to push that problem further down the line."
Hinz said the region struggles to attract specialists like child psychiatrists. She said the province will need to recruit more than one doctor for the area to avoid burning out doctors who eventually take on the role. In the meantime, she said the Saskatoon staff working with youth — and their families — need more resources.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said in an email that "mental health services are delivered by a range of professionals including social workers, mental health therapists, family physicians and nurses as well as visiting and telemedicine services from psychiatry and other professions" in northern Saskatchewan.
It said visiting and virtual child psychiatric services are being offered in the community by Saskatoon-based psychiatrists for patients who don't require admission. It noted that "recruitment of these sub-specialty positions like child psychiatry is challenging and not unique to Saskatchewan."
Hinz said the closure has magnified existing gaps in the provincial mental health care system.
"We were making due with what we had, but even before this closure there were a lot of struggles and gaps in care," she said. "Even before that we struggled with not enough child psychiatrists, not enough publicly funded mental health therapists or psychologists."