Saskatoon child psychiatrist fears for province’s youth after closure of P.A. mental health unit

'You feel this sort of emotional draining and this despair, like this is never going to end,' says Dr. Madhav Sarda

Dr. Madhav Sarda is a child psychiatrist in Saskatoon, helping clients under the age of 18 in need of mental health care and diagnoses. (Madhav Sarda/Submitted)

A Saskatoon child psychiatrist feels like he was seeing an infinite stream of clients even before the closure of a youth mental health unit in Prince Albert.

Dr. Madhav Sarda is speaking out about the need to recruit child psychiatrists to serve central and northern Saskatchewan. That’s after his colleague, Dr. Tamara Hinz, took to Twitter on Tuesday to say “our kids deserve better.”

“Recruiting child psychiatrists is no joke—almost everywhere is short staffed and P.A. will have to be able to make attractive offers to be competitive. You also can’t bring in just one; the workload is massive and one poor soul would burnout instantly,” wrote Hinz.

The Prince Albert Child and Youth Mental Health Unit was forced to close following the retirement of the city’s last child psychiatrist in June. With 10 beds each in Prince Albert, Saskatoon and Regina, that meant that capacity had decreased by one-third overnight, Hinz said.

Sarda echoed Hinz’s concerns, saying children across the north half of the province have been seeking care in Saskatoon. It leaves him worried about what the future holds.

“I was running at 100 per cent of what I could give before all of this,” he said.

“We all care deeply about this province and the kids here and we do what we have to do to kind of get by, but it feels draining and it’s exhausting and you feel you don’t know if it’s going to get better because there isn’t a clear solution on the horizon.”

Sarda estimated that this could continue for years before the appropriate number of psychiatrists are in place in Prince Albert. In the meantime, he said, the consequences are nothing short of alarming.

“I think we’d like to assume that if you need care, you’ll get care, but what we see a lot of in mental health, of course, is if care isn’t readily available, people just don’t get care and they suffer in silence or it can lead to loss of life, the suicide crisis that we already have in the north,” he said.

“I hope something happens in regards to this because I’m actually really, really worried about the fall. I mean the other thing, too, is there’s not really places to put these kids. They need a bed.”

Sarda said while the summertime is slower than normal, he typically sees a spike of clients in the fall—that was pre-pandemic. During the summer, children aren’t having to cope with the stresses of school and their families are home more. In September, those stressors arise again.

While patients could go to a pediatric ward, Sarda said they’re not set up specifically for people struggling with mental health crises.

“What are we going to do?” he questioned.

“You feel this sort of emotional draining and this despair, like this is never going to end.”

Brett Enns is the executive director of primary health care for the north and northeast. He’s based out of Prince Albert.

In an interview, Enns said the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) is actively recruiting for four child and youth psychiatrists in Prince Albert. Like Hinz, though, he said it’s not as simple as it sounds.

“Our planning identified that we need to be looking for a group of four. Now, will we be able to recruit all four in one step? I wouldn’t say that’s possible,” he said.

He anticipated that the SHA will be able to recruit one or two within the next few months to a year. Enns couldn’t say when the Prince Albert unit would be able to reopen, however.

“It’s more than just recruiting to a job. Many of these folks have been in school for lengthy periods of time and so often they have family, often they have children. Many times the children are in school, maybe a home involved. It’s a family decision as much as it is an individual physician decision to make a move.”

Enns said patients can still seek help through the Victoria Hospital’s emergency department. He said there’s an adult psychiatrist that can also care for children.

Dr. Mohammad Hussain, a well-known psychiatrist in Prince Albert, passed away in October of 2019.

In an emailed statement, the Ministry of Health said arrangements can be made in Saskatoon if someone requires inpatient care.

The ministry listed outpatient services available for youth in the city, including individual assessment and treatment, grief counselling, clinical consultation and group services for anxiety and depression.

“Saskatchewan’s overall supply of psychiatrists has been steadily increasing. Since 2007, the number of psychiatrists has increased by 34 per cent,” read the email.

Prince Albert Northcote NDP MLA Nicole Rancourt sent a letter to Minister of Health Jim Reiter about the lack of mental health and addictions services in the city. The letter, dated Aug. 24, expresses concerns about both the closure of the Mental Health Child and Youth Inpatient Unit and the Family Treatment Centre for COVID-19 testing.

“It was inconceivable that government MLAs voted against the Suicide Prevention Strategy bill, but in addition, offering little to no mental health and addictions services in Prince Albert is not acceptable and is a danger to our youth,” wrote Rancourt.

The Ministry of Health said Reiter has received the letter from Rancourt and is sending a response soon.

NDP Cumberland MLA Doyle Vermette posed a suicide prevention bill, which got turned down in assembly in June. That sparked Tristen Durocher, who’s originally from Buffalo Narrows, to lead a walk in protest from Air Ronge to Regina.

Now, Durocher is reaching the end of his 44-day ceremonial fast at his tipi camp on legislature grounds.

The provincial government release a suicide prevention plan in May, but Durocher said it lacks accountability to put concrete prevention measures in place.

“The people of Prince Albert and the north have been let down by a government that hasn’t put the proper supports in place,” said NDP Mental Health and Addictions Critic Danielle Chartier in a news release.

“The services provided by child psychiatrists are desperately needed, but the government’s response has been just more austerity, which means more cuts and claw backs for the services families rely on.”

“Already my job entails seeing kids who are in extreme crisis and who are either having severe hallucinations or delusions or having extreme trauma or wanting to end their lives on a daily basis,” said Sarda.

“That’s my day-to-day job and now it has become more acute, more intense seeing this never ending flow of kids.”