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University of Regina's Kirstin Kuka

Kirstin Kuka has seen both sides of mental health services in the province. The 22-year-old was diagnosed with depression and anxiety at 19. Since then she’s noticed flaws in the system.


Now the province is trying to develop a 10-year plan to fix these shortfalls.


“It got to the point that it got so bad that I had to wait to see a counsellor, I had to wait to see a psychologist and I just wound up in the emergency room,” said Kuka, a fifth-year human justice student at the University of Regina. “I eventually got to the point where I needed help and I needed it now.”


Her story isn’t the first in Saskatchewan. David Nelson with the Saskatchewan Mental Health Association says people often wait months to get mental health services across the province.


This is one of the reasons the Saskatchewan Mental Health and Addictions Commission began a study of mental health services in the province. The commission will present its findings and recommendations to the government later this fall.


“Mental health and addiction issues have a significant impact on families, communities, the health care sector, social programs, and it also has economic consequences,” said Judy Orthner, spokesperson for the action plan. She estimates one in every five Canadians is affected by mental health or addictions issues each year.               


“The Ontario government suggested that every dollar spent in mental health and addiction treatments saves $7 in further health costs and $30 in lost productivity,” she said. “Any type of health or addictions issue is very costly in terms of the emotional costs and in terms of productivity and health services.”


The commission is headed by psychologist Fern Stockdale Winder out of Saskatoon. Stockdale Winder was unavailable for comment, but Orthner said her study focused on talking with those directly affected by mental health issues.


“The most important thing is any recommendations she’s making are from what she’s heard from families and services. It was about listening to the voices of those who have experience in the system,” Orthner said. Stockdale Winder also met with 150 stakeholders, including everything from community groups to provincial associations in the field.


Nelson said it’s a relief to see the province looking into an issue that has been a problem for five decades.


“We only put five per cent of our health budget in this province towards mental health. The average across Canada is seven and the recommendation from those in the know is that it should be about nine per cent,” he said. “So we’re really only putting in half of what we should be.”


In Regina it can take months to see a psychiatrist, and even longer in rural areas. Nelson said this lack of service has bled into an institutional pitfall for those requiring help.


“You need to have been hospitalized twice in the last three years to be able to get on-going case management services. That’s the absolute opposite of what you should be doing,” he said.


“The equivalent we always say is, if you went to the emergency room and said, ‘Jeeze, I’ve got chest pains’ and I said, ‘Well have you had two heart attacks in the last three years? Otherwise we can’t help you.' People would think they were nuts, except that’s kind of what we’ve built right into our system.”


Kuka said she’s seen people she works with wait up to six months to see a counsellor, something that often leads to worsened symptoms.


“I would like to see them get more proactive on the frontline, get more counselling and more resources,” she said. “This is a step in the right direction, but they’ve got a long way to go.”