Waterford Hospital walk-in closure 'just another barrier' to mental health services, advocates say

The Waterford Hospital in the west end of St. John's isn't accepting walk-in patients until Jan. 17. (CBC - image credit)
The Waterford Hospital in the west end of St. John's isn't accepting walk-in patients until Jan. 17. (CBC - image credit)

Advocates for mental health care are frustrated by a diversion at Newfoundland and Labrador's only dedicated psychiatric facility, saying officials could have been more transparent about why emergency care at the Waterford Hospital was closed for the holidays.

Jamie Ruby said Monday he's used the psychiatric assessment unit at the St. John's facility several times in the past few years, calling it a "crucial" service for people experiencing crises.

"This redirection has not been communicated terribly well to the people who would avail of that service," Ruby said, noting he only knew about it because a friend shared an Eastern Health press release on social media.

The health authority issued a notice on Dec. 22 notifying the public of the service diversion to nearby St. Clare's Mercy Hospital until Jan. 17.

Ruby says the release made the authority appear unprepared for staff shortages during the holidays.

"Nothing about that screams, 'We are confident this is an effective resolution,'" Ruby said. "This screams 'last-minute scramble.'"

Ari Rochester, who has used mental health services in other provinces, says the health authority's announcement contained few details, which doesn't help breed trust and transparency.

"There are many people out there who cannot afford to pay for private care, and the Waterford … is basically what they have," said Rochester.

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

They worry that offering emergency care at St. Clare's, where privacy may not be assured, could be another barrier to those seeking help.

Ruby says the diversion could damage his own resolve.

"If I'm going to a [psychiatric assessment unit], from the point I have decided to go to there, to the point that I walk in the door, I've had to reconvince myself no less than 10 times to actually do through that door," he said.

"It's just another barrier that someone can experience to getting the few services that we do have access to right now."

Staffing an issue, Eastern Health says

In an emailed statement Monday afternoon, Eastern Health said services haven't been affected by the diversion.

"It is important to note that those individuals who present to St. Clare's Mercy Hospital receive the same service they would have received if they went to PAU [pyschiatric assessment unit]. They are triaged by a registered nurse, assessed by a qualified mental health professional, and transferred to the PAU for a psychiatric consultation, if needed," the statement said.

Eastern Health acknowledged staffing issues at the unit, noting it had hired a doctor to begin in March and is "actively recruiting" to fill more positions.

"Physician recruitment continues to be a challenge throughout the province and Canada, including for the PAU," the statement said.

The health authority also defended its communication practice.

"As soon as a plan was in place, information on this redirection was shared broadly with the media via public service announcement, shared directly with the public on social media, updated on the corporate website and posted signage at the PAU," a spokesperson wrote.

"Eastern Health also communicated this information to relevant stakeholders, such as community and mental health and addictions organizations."

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