Telemedicine Provides Psychiatric Lifeline for Kids in Crisis

TORONTO, Nov. 19 /CNW/ - Every year, thousands of youngsters in Ontario experience a mental health crisis, yet the vast majority end up waiting months for psychiatric assessment and treatment because of the severe shortage of these specialists. Now a groundbreaking new program is bridging the gap between kids and care.

Nearly 20 per cent of young people under the age of 18 in the province are affected by a mental illness or disorder. Astoundingly, only one in six of these will actually receive the mental health services they require.

"Imagine being the parent of a child in serious mental crisis. And then imagine arriving at a hospital emergency department and being told that it will be months before the child can be properly assessed by a psychiatrist. That is the sad reality for many families," says Dr. Ed Brown, CEO of the Ontario Telemedicine Network (OTN).

OTN's live, two-way video conferencing technology is assisting hospitals to provide more immediate care to this vulnerable population. The program, called the Virtual Emergency Room, was launched in 2008 by Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences, Lakeridge Health, Peterborough Regional Health Centre and Ross Memorial Hospital. The program allows young patients with an urgent mental health problem that require specialist intervention to be assessed within 72 hours. The participating psychiatrists are able to link to these youngsters using OTN's network.

Dr. Gabby Ledger is a child/adolescent psychiatrist at Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences and is one of three physicians at the hospital currently providing care through the Virtual Emergency Room.

"Kids suffering with untreated serious mental illness are at risk. They may begin failing in school, pulling away from their peers and families, becoming socially isolated. They may end up living on the streets or in the most severe cases, they may try to take their own lives," says Dr. Ledger. "That's why the VER program is so important; it allows us to reach these kids before their mental health problems worsen."

Anne (real case, name changed to protect identity), a parent, understands first hand what can happen when access to these specialists is limited. For years, her son struggled with mental illness, purposely harming himself on many occasions. Doctors told Anne that his issues were behavioural and that he was just seeking attention. Anne's son attempted suicide at 13 years old.

"I was so frustrated...for years I had been telling doctors something wasn't right and no one would listen. Even after his suicide attempt, it would have taken months to see a child psychiatrist. The VER allowed him to be seen within a week. We are so grateful that he is finally getting help."

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people in Canada and accounts for more deaths in this age group than cancer and AIDS combined. And for every young person who dies by suicide, there are an estimated 200 attempted suicides.

By linking to any of the four hospitals via the OTN system, the participating psychiatrists are able to provide more immediate care to more young patients at risk. The program serves children and youth who suffer from complex mental health issues such as bi-polar disorder, psychosis and severe behavioural disturbances.

The technology also helps address geographic distances. The Central East LHIN stretches from Victoria Park (Scarborough) to Algonquin Park, so there is a lot of ground to cover and not enough child/adolescent psychiatrists to serve the area.

"The program has been incredibly well received by patients, their families and referring physicians," says Dr. Ledger. "They are usually so relieved when they discover how quickly they can be seen."

The Ontario Telemedicine Network (OTN) is an independent not-for-profit organization funded by the Government of Ontario. OTN is a secure, encrypted video network that helps deliver clinical care and professional education among health care providers and patients.

SOURCE Ontario Telemedicine Network

For further information: For further information: visit or contact: Sara Cauchon, (416) 777-0368

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