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Health P.E.I.’s new mental health and addictions ER expected to be ‘game changer’

Health P.E.I. staff and patients are calling Prince Edward Island’s new mental health and addictions emergency department, thought to be the first of its kind in Atlantic Canada, a game-changer, monumental, and a long time coming. 

The new emergency department is in the same building as Queen Elizabeth Hospital’s ER in Charlottetown, but is a separate space for treating people in a mental health or addictions crisis. It opens Tuesday, Feb. 27, and will be staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“We can take them from the busy waiting room out front and provide a quiet space,” said Leslie Warren, director of acute and complex care for mental health and addictions with Health P.E.I.

“Often people are struggling, and coming through that front door is one of the toughest things to do,” she said. 

Leslie Warren, director of acute and complex care for mental health and addictions with Health P.E.I., says the new space is welcoming and inviting. (Laura Meader/CBC)

People seeking treatment for mental health or addictions will still go into the same ER as everyone else, but staff doing triage will send them directly to the new mental health and addictions area to begin assessment. 

The facility has seven assessment rooms, a family room and consult rooms. 

Knowing that they’re coming to an inviting, welcoming, calming environment— I’m hoping it’s going to make all the difference.— Leslie Warren

Staff say it will be a quicker and more effective process, so patients don’t have to spend as long waiting in the general ER while they are in crisis. 

“It’s going to be really a game-changer,” said psychiatrist Dr. Javier Salabarria, Health P.E.I.’s provincial medical director for mental health and addictions. 

Away from the chaos

Since space in the traditional emergency room is at a premium, until now mental health and addictions patients were sometimes being seen in rooms not intended for them. 

“That might be the eye room, the cast room, [the] lounge … pretty much any space that was available,” said Salabarria. 

Staff designed the new department to be a calming and welcoming environment, away from the chaos of the busy ER. 

A look inside P.E.I.’s new mental health emergency department

There will soon be a new space in Charlottetown dedicated to urgent mental health and addictions issues. It’s set to open next week at Queen Elizabeth Hospital. CBC P.E.I. takes you on a tour.

Warren remembers responding to mental health crises in spaces that were cramped and full of medical equipment. 

“It was a little bit scary and uninviting, and that was the space [where] I was assessing clients,” she said. 

She hopes people will feel better about coming to seek treatment at the new department. 

“Knowing that they’re coming to an inviting, welcoming, calming environment — I’m hoping it’s going to make all the difference,” Warren said. 

For patients who need to be admitted for 72 hours or less, there will also be a short-stay unit connected to the new department. Expected to open in the spring, that unit will have four patient rooms and two transition rooms. 

A man wearing glasses and a suit and tie does an interview.
The new emergency department should take some pressure off the regular ER, says Dr. Javier Salabarria, provincial medical director for mental health and addictions with Health P.E.I. (Laura Meader/CBC)

One P.E.I. woman who has experience with trying to get treatment for her mental health says she’s happy to hear about the new department. 

“We definitely needed this and it’s been a long time coming. I’ve been advocating for a space like this for many years,” said Christine MacFadyen, who struggles with suicidal thoughts and has been treated for borderline personality disorder. 

MacFadyen said she has been to the ER in Charlottetown several times seeking mental health care. 

“It’s noisy and people are looking at you and you’re crying and you’re in a state of crisis,” she said. 

MacFadyen said she once waited 15 hours in the ER to receive care. 

“That’s a long time to wait to see a doctor and to get help [when] you’re feeling like you want to just go and hurt yourself,” she said. 

A woman with long dark hair and a blue shirt stands in her kitchen.
Christine MacFadyen, who once waited 15 hours in the general ER at Queen Elizabeth Hospital to be treated for mental health concerns, says the new emergency department is good news. (Laura Meader/CBC)

A specialized mental health team including psychiatrists, social workers and nurses will staff the new facility. 

There are enough psychiatrists on P.E.I. to be on call for this new department, said Salabarria, but Health P.E.I. could still use more. 

“I’m working with recruitment and retention literally on a daily basis, and the more psychiatrists we have available, then obviously the fewer on-calls that we need to do,” he said. 

Take pressure off ER

Based on his own experience, about 12 to 15 patients are coming to the traditional Charlottetown hospital ER on any given day with mental health issues, said Salabarria. Those types of patients will now be triaged to the new department. 

“That will relieve some of the pressure in the [general ER] in terms of space and actually also in terms of staffing,” he said.

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