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Mental-health patients get own ER

$12.5-million crisis-response centre first of its kind in Canada

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Lisa and Lynda Shaw in front of the new Bannatyne Avenue facility, which will have a maximum waiting time of 15 minutes for mental-health patients.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Lisa and Lynda Shaw in front of the new Bannatyne Avenue facility, which will have a maximum waiting time of 15 minutes for mental-health patients. Photo Store

From the outside, the new limestone and wood building looks like it could be a day spa. Peek in the window and soothing neutral colours and original art present a calm decor.

When it opens June 3, it will welcome people having a mental-health crisis 24-7.

"It's a new option for people struggling with really serious illness," Health Minister Theresa Oswald said in an interview.

The $12.5-million Community Mental Health Crisis Response Centre is an emergency department strictly for mental-health crises.

"It's very different from a trauma centre," she said, adding it's the first of its kind in Canada.

Instead of waiting in a hospital emergency department for hours to see a doctor, a patient in the throes of mental illness will be seen right away at the centre, located at the west end of the Health Sciences Centre campus, and get the correct kind of assessment and care.

"It's very hard when you're told you're going to go to the back of the line," Oswald said.

'I'd never been depressed in my life. I'm someone who plays sports, I entertain... and I couldn't get out of bed'

-- Lisa Shaw, who was suddenly hit with depression at 49

There may be no physical trauma visible, but a mental-health crisis can be deadly, she said.

"It is life and death," said Oswald.

Lisa Shaw knows that all too well.

She suffered for 13 months from major depression with psychotic features.

"I'd never been depressed in my life. I'm someone who plays sports, I entertain... and I couldn't get out of bed," said Shaw, 49.

She was 46 when mental illness struck.

"I did some really off things, like wandering around the neighborhood in winter (without a coat). I smashed a picture and ate the glass. My sister caught me with a plastic bag over my face," said Shaw, who now volunteers with the Canadian Mental Health Association and the United Way speakers bureau sharing her story.

"I like to talk about my recovery -- the positive outcome. Not everyone gets through it," she said, before telling the story of her father who was 49 when he took his own life.

"My father suffered the same diagnosis -- major depression with psychotic features. He walked out of the psych ward and into the Red River 15 years ago."

The new crisis-response centre will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week like an emergency department. It will have a security system, but it won't be the first thing people see when they enter the facility.

"This will be very different," said Oswald. "It's a safe, comforting and caring approach."

The psychiatrist who took the lead in developing the centre said the look, feel and staffing of the centre will be much different from an ER.

"There's a lot of light and a lot of space," said Dr. Murray Enns. "The rooms are named after trees."

Patients will be seen within 15 minutes and the centre expects to see 10,000 patients a year. He expects it will see 50 to 80 per cent of the mental-health patients who have been using the emergency department in times of crisis.

Instead of costly ER visits to see medical doctors who may not be able to help, the mental-health patients at the crisis centre will see a range of workers "all along the spectrum," said Oswald. Social workers, crisis counsellors and physician assistants work with patients along with staff from the psychiatry department. With a staff of 39, the centre will be an "access hub" to other services when a patient needs them, Enns said. The availability of the centre is expected to reduce the number of mental-health patients going through the emergency room revolving door.

"It's a huge step forward for mental-health services to have a dedicated mental-health ER," said Shaw.

"Countless times, I'd be sitting in the emergency ward -- not for a couple of hours, but all day."

The experience was tough on her, her older sister Lynda, who accompanied her, and others waiting and working in the ER.

"It's really important for family members to know your loved one is going to be looked after and cared for and people in the facility can understand and help you," said Lynda Shaw, 54. On ER visits with Lisa, she'd try to keep her calm and convince people that her sister with no obvious physical wounds is really sick and in crisis.

"When you're put in with the general population, it's really hard when you can't sit still," Lisa said. "It's really hard when your family is afraid you'll run away and really hard when police bring you in," she said.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2013 A4

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