People with mental illness in N.L. waiting up to two years for psychiatric care

According to the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association, the province has the country’s longest wait times for mental health care. This is causing patients to wait more than a year to receive psychiatric treatment.

Thandi O’Grady

Sarah Hillier spent a total of four years waiting for a psychiatrist. Submitted photo.

For individuals seeking mental health care, long wait times can create not only delay in the path to recovery but they can also worsen one’s condition. 

It was a long and very difficult wait for Sarah Hillier of St. John’s to receive the help she needed. She says it took her about a year just to get a consultation with a resident psychiatrist to receive a quick diagnosis. It was in 2016 when she received her diagnosis for post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder, but that diagnosis was inaccurate.

After this quick diagnosis, Hillier was put on a waitlist to get access to a psychiatrist who would see her regularly. Three years later in 2019, Hillier was told there was a number she could call through Eastern Health to see where her position was on the waitlist.

“The lady on the line, she kind of laughed when I asked and said, ‘You know, unfortunately, you’re gonna have at least another year waiting for a psychiatrist.’ At that point, I was, you know, struggling obviously a lot and that actually sent me into a depressive episode. At that point, I had already attempted suicide as well so it was pretty urgent for me,” said Hillier.

According to Eastern Health, wait times for a psychiatric appointment can vary, with the most urgent referrals seen first. The most recent data – up to the end of December 2020 – show that median wait times vary, depending on assessed urgency, from two-and-a-half months to two years.

In 2020 Hillier was finally able to get a psychiatrist. Within a couple of sessions, the psychiatrist was able to give her the proper diagnosis of complex post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder.

Hillier says she is grateful for her family doctor who recognized how urgently she needed help. Her doctor was sending in referrals to psychiatrists in Eastern Health since 2016 but was unsuccessful. It wasn’t until 2019 when her doctor sent a referral outside of Eastern health that a psychiatrist was found. That persistence is how Hillier was able to get her current psychiatrist. 

“I was warned that it could take a long time,” Hillier said. “It could take up to a year but nobody ever said it would be a really long time. I mean people who are dealing with mental illnesses don’t necessarily have four to five years to wait.”

Having to turn down patients

According to the Newfoundland and Labrador Psychology Board, there are currently 235 registered psychologists in the province and another 16 who are provisionally registered.

According to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Newfoundland and Labrador, there are 89 practising psychiatrists in the province.

The lengthy wait times apply to people waiting to see psychologists, who are therapists, as well as psychiatrists, who are doctors.

Laura Casey Foss, a registered psychologist at Mind Body Psychology in Corner Brook, says turning down patients is the hardest part of her job, especially during this current pandemic. 

“I have not accepted anybody new on my waitlist I’d say in over a year and my waitlist is officially over two years long,” Foss said. “So the people who have been waiting for the longest on my waitlist have been there for over 25 months. I’m in large partly ashamed to even say that. There is just not enough of me to go around.”

Foss says the problem of long waiting lists for mental health care is not just about a shortage of therapists or psychiatrists. It’s also about people not having access to the therapists that are there and available. 

“I think there are a few changes that could help. One is that organizations within the province need to be providing insurance benefit packages that allow for enough money to benefit somebody for psychology or social work services,” said Foss.

Hillier says the long wait times demonstrate that there are flaws in the mental health system that need to be improved.

“I think maybe it says there’s still a long way to go when it comes to learning about the effects of mental health. I think a lot of people still kind of think, ‘Well, you know, it’s something you can just get over,’” said Hillier.

Eastern Health’s media relations manager, Tracey Boland says decreasing wait times for psychiatry is something the health authority is actively working on. Boland said strategies such as virtual psychiatry appointments have been enhanced so that more patients can have access to these appointments. In addition, a stepped-care model of service delivery has also been put in place. The service includes self-help options, eMental Health, therapeutic groups, individual counselling and specialized services such as psychiatry.

About Thandi O'Grady 16 Articles
I am a student journalist for CNA's news outlet, Kicker News. Stay tuned for new stories out every Thursday.

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