CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. — P.E.I.’s top mental health and addictions decision-maker says the Island has seen a significant drop in the wait times for those in need of psychiatric services.
Heather Keizer, Health P.E.I.’s chief of mental health and addictions services, told members of the standing committee on health and social development that the province has seen its wait times for psychiatry services drop to between 14 and 28 days for adults and children. In July, the wait times were between seven and 14 days.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic the wait times reached as high as 150 days for child psychiatry assessments, Keizer said. For adults, wait times reached as high as 350 days for adults, while wait times for forensic psychiatry assessments were 60 days or longer.
Keizer called these reductions in wait times “huge wins”. She said the reductions in wait times occurred in part due to telehealth assessments that were put in place as part of the COVID-19 public health restrictions.
Early in the pandemic, patients in Unit 9 who could be seen elsewhere were discharged to the community and were able to be seen via telehealth.
“This work moved very, very quickly,” Keizer said.
“We were up and running by the first of April.”
Unit 9 at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital saw most patients discharged to allow capacity for potential COVID-19 patients. Keizer said this removed about 40 per cent of the psychiatric patients away from the emergency room.
The Hillsborough Hospital was established as a psychiatric urgent care clinic.
Details on psychiatry wait times have been difficult to obtain in the past. Last July, Health P.E.I. told The Guardian it did not know how long its average wait times were for individuals seeking psychiatry services. The most recent annual report for Health P.E.I. also did not list wait times for individuals needing urgent care due to data quality issues.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Unit 9 was effectively without long-term psychiatry coverage. Two psychiatrists had left their positions in December.
A locum, or temporary physician, who had been covering shifts at Unit 9, had planned to leave for Quebec as of April. He opted to remain in P.E.I. instead after the pandemic hit.
“He moved his family to P.E.I. His child was born in P.E.I.” Keizer said.
“He’s actually chosen to stay and sign a contract with us because we became a place of safety for him.”
Keizer said the demand for mental health and addictions services diminished in the early months of the pandemic. She suggested the pandemic may have reduced anxiety for some and gave individuals a “focus for their energy” in terms of public health measures related to COVID-19.
“When I talked to patients who might have been socially anxious or [had obsessive-compulsive disorder], they actually were like ‘we’re normal’,” Keizer said.
Keizer added that as time went on, the demand for mental health services has risen once again. Some individuals have relied upon alcohol, cannabis or other substances as coping strategies.
Keizer’s presentation seemed a stark contrast to a presentation before the same committee an hours earlier.
“I have not spoken to a single person, really since April, who has told me that they are doing great,” Tayte Willows, a community development manager with the CMHA, told the committee.
Willows said peer support staff with the CMHA have observed an increase in unhealthy coping strategies, such as use of drugs and alcohol.
“We believe we are seeing a decrease in mental wellness,” Willows said.
Willows also pointed to the results of an online survey commissioned by the CMHA in May that found that 1 in 20 Canadians had experienced suicidal thoughts as a result of the pandemic.
Courtney Cudmore, a peer support worker with CMHA, acknowledged counselling and psychiatry resources were accessible during the pandemic.
“Health services and supports were really crucial and helpful to our peers during the pandemic,” Cudmore said.
“That being said, not being able to go in-person to access their supports left most people feeling a loss of connection and understanding.”
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, seek help immediately by either calling 911, going to an emergency department or by calling the Island Helpline at 1-800-218-2885.
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