Whitehorse General Hospital is to have a secure psychiatric ward by April.
The Yukon government made the announcement Wednesday, following four years of complaints issued by the Yukon Medical Association that mental health facilities in the hospital are, in the words of the association’s president, “paltry.”
Central to the complaints is the lack of a secure psychiatric ward.
The hospital presently has one seclusion room to hold (involuntarily) mentally ill patients under the Mental Health Act. Other mentally ill patients are spread throughout the patient population.
The hospital plans to create a six-room psychiatric unit, which would include two seclusion rooms, two “safe” rooms with safety features to prevent patients from harming themselves, and two standard in-patient rooms.
The creation of a psych ward is “a step in the right direction,” said Dr. Rao Tadepalli, the association’s president.
Also promising is the hospital’s plan to hire six mental-health nurses to work in the psychiatric ward.
The hospital presently only has one such nurse on call. The medical association has called for there to be a minimum of two mental-health nurses on staff.
However, the next challenge lies in recruiting and retaining that many nurses, said Tadepalli. There is a nurse shortage across Canada, and it remains a struggle for Whitehorse to compete with bigger urban centres, he said.
Another concern of Tadepalli’s is the lack of adequate security in the hospital.
Staff have been assaulted by mentally ill patients with no security nearby. It remains unclear what security will be provided for the new ward.
But Tadepalli remains cautiously optimistic. “We’ll need to see in six months what has happened,” he said.
The proposed changes are “no long-term solution,” he added. But they may “provide the bare necessities that are required.”
One looming fear is that, with a secure psychiatric ward, the hospital may be asked to intern jail inmates with mental health problems. The Whitehorse jail has in custody one mentally ill woman who is not imprisoned for any crime. She is in jail because the Yukon has no adequate mental institution for her to go to.
Given the choice between going to a southern institution, away from family, and staying in the Yukon, she chooses to stay in prison.
The announcement of the new psychiatric ward follows the signing of a deal Wednesday between the hospital board and Health department which will boost the hospital’s funding by six per cent each year for the next three years.
Next year the hospital will receive $35.5 million, up from $32.1 million this year. In 2010-11 the hospital’s funding increases to $37.8 million.
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