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‘A paradigm shift’: Ontario Shores advocates for emergency mental health care unit

Click to play video 'Ontario Shores pushes for emergency mental health care unit' Ontario Shores pushes for emergency mental health care unit
Whitby psychiatric facility Ontario Shores is lending its support to a mental health patient care system that doctors say has seen great success in the U.S. Brittany Rosen has more. – Nov 4, 2020

Ontario Shores, a mental health hospital in Whitby, Ont., has launched a campaign to garner support to fund an emergency mental health care model that is currently being implemented in the United States.

“We couldn’t understand how you can wait for six, seven, eight hours and then, when the patient sees the psychiatrist, they’re literally within five minutes are discharged,” said Oshawa father Shane Christensen, whose son lives with schizophrenia.

It’s an experience Christensen says no one, let alone a parent, should ever have to experience. His son, John, was taken to a number of hospital emergency rooms over the years where Christensen says he wasn’t treated fairly compared to other patients.

“You felt that you weren’t welcome,” he said.

“There was a sense of, almost, as if you were imposing on the people and the patients there for medical issues.”

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Read more: Ontario man denied government-funded mental health support for having ‘complex’ case

According to Dr. Phillip Klassen, a lead psychiatrist with Ontario Shores, this is an all too familiar story among mental health patients, which is why the hospital is advocating for community support to build what would be Canada’s first Emergency Psychiatric Assessment Treatment and Healing Unit (EmPATH), a facility that would provide temporary, around-the-clock emergency care for patients facing urgent mental health matters.

“It’s a great opportunity to change the face of emergency mental health,” Dr. Klassen told Global News.

“Providing active treatment and at all costs avoiding restraint, seclusion and control measures, even if the patient is in acute distress, is to a (broader) extent a paradigm shift, but a very important one whose time has come.”

The EmPATH Unit would also have a much different setting compared to a typical ED in a hospital, with physically distanced recliner chairs and amenities including things like lockers, laundry and food. The purpose of this, experts say, is to provide a more pleasant experience for the patient, who might be in distress.

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Clients would be permitted to stay in the facility up to a day while receiving treatment. Following this, they would either be sent home or connected with a subsequent mental health agency to receive further care.

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According to Dr. Klassen, there is a dire need for the unit, as over the last four years there has been a 25 per cent increase in mental health visits in Durham, while substance abuse visits are up by 40 per cent.

The EmPATH Unit would ensure the patient is seen immediately by a psychiatrist. It would reduce the strain on first responders, who could be released within 20 minutes on average, instead of having to wait longer periods while the patient is admitted, he said.

Dr. Klassen says logistics are still being worked out in regard to whether patients would be able to walk-in or if they would only be permitted through the delivery of first responders.

The concept itself has been around for the last decade and is already being implemented in at least 20 hospitals across the U.S.

“The idea came from specifically, ‘How can we help these folks?’ Because what we’ve seen from our research is that the vast majority of them don’t need to be hospitalized if we start treatment for them right away,” said founder of the EmPATH Unit, Dr. Scott Zeller, a California-based psychiatrist.

Read more: ‘We’re at a breaking point’: Addressing mental health during COVID-19

Dr. Zeller says this will ultimately put less of a strain on emergency departments, which are currently brimming with COVID-19 patients and others facing pandemic-related implications.

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“There’s been a huge rise in despondency, a huge rise in domestic abuse issues, suicide attempts,” Dr. Zeller said, “so having the opportunity to treat these folks at an emergency level of care is really more necessary perhaps right now than ever before.”

As for Christensen, he says this type of care model would have provided a much better experience for his son.

“The prospect that other parents and other patients wouldn’t have to experience what my son went through and what my family went through is just awesome.”

Ontario Shores is seeking funding from the province to bring the EmPATH unit to Canada.