People struggling with mental illness in Saskatchewan are facing long waits to see a psychiatrist, and some say that’s having a negative impact on those who need help.

The Canadian Mental Health Association estimates some people are waiting as much as six months to see a psychiatrist in Saskatchewan, depending on where they live in the province.

“When someone requires a psychiatrist and they’re not available or there’s a long waiting time… people can get worse,” said Dave Nelson, associate executive director of the CMHA in Saskatchewan.

“(With) depression or anxiety, or maybe a more serious thing like schizophrenia or bipolar, if you’ve got to wait for four months or six months because it’s not life threatening at the time, things can deteriorate quite a bit.”

Saskatchewan has the lowest number of psychiatrists per capita in Western Canada, according to data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information. In 2014, there were eight psychiatrists per 100,000 people in Saskatchewan. B.C. had the highest number of psychiatrists per capita with 15 per 100,000 people, followed by Manitoba with 12 and Alberta with 11.

“Unfortunately, psychiatrists now are in short supply,” Nelson said. “That means, in many ways, what they do is they prescribe medications, and don’t have the time to actually spend some time with a person, do maybe a bit of counselling, that kind of thing. It turns out to be pushing pills.”

Nelson says the CMHA’s Saskatchewan office has been “swamped” with calls from people looking for help with mental health issues. Government statistics show regional health authorities provided mental health services to more than 34,000 people in the 2014-15 fiscal year. That figure doesn’t include those who went to a fee-for-service psychiatrist.

Ingrid Kirby, a director with Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Health, says the province recognizes there is a need for more psychiatrists, and is taking steps to address the shortage. As of March 2015, there were 100 registered psychiatrists in Saskatchewan, an increase of 15 per cent since the Saskatchewan Party government took power in 2007.

The province has bolstered its training capacity for psychiatry in recent years. Thirty psychiatry students are currently enrolled at the College of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, and seven new students start the program each year. Last summer marked the first time psychiatrists graduated from a five-year training program in Regina that was launched in 2010.

“That increased training capacity has resulted in improved access for our patients,” Kirby said. “We’re quite optimistic as those psychiatrists come out of the training program that we’ll continue to retain them, so we’ll continue to see our numbers improve.”

However, the shortage of psychiatrists in Saskatchewan isn’t the only obstacle people with mental health issues face in getting the help they need. The stigma surrounding mental illness is also a significant barrier. According to the Canadian Medical Association, two in three people with mental health problems suffer in silence for fear of judgment and rejection.

“People put off and put off and put off (getting help) because of stigma or because they think they can handle it themselves,” said Nelson.

“When they finally do look for help, they’re at some sort of almost crisis level many times, and they find out that they can’t get it because they have to wait.”