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Saskatchewan’s children’s advocate says wait times for youth mental-health services in the province are unacceptable.

Corey O’Soup says young people shouldn’t have to wait for up to two years to see a psychiatrist.

“The wait times for mental-health services experienced by children in this province are shameful,” O’Soup said Tuesday as he released his annual report.

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“Those are the children that end up in our reports. Those are the children that we want to stop from dying.”

O’Soup’s report says 19 children died in the province’s care last year and 47 were critically injured.

Two of the deaths were suicides and 11 young people were injured in suicide attempts. First Nations and Metis youth accounted for 79 per cent of deaths and 65 per cent of those injured.

Suicide rates in northern Saskatchewan communities are high. Indigenous boys between 10 and 19 are six times more likely to die from suicide while Indigenous girls of the same age are 26 times more likely to take their own lives.

“The suicide rates aren’t going any lower. The 811 number will work for a few kids here and there, but obviously it’s not working for everybody, right?” O’Soup said, referencing the number for the province’s health line. “We need to do more.”

O’Soup wants to see the province bring in a mental-health program similar to Alberta, where services are incorporated into schools. Alberta’s model includes mental-health promotion and prevention, and tries to make support more accessible.

O’Soup said 182 schools, along with 74 additional partner schools, use the approach in Alberta.

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He said it has the potential to make a big difference in Saskatchewan.

“If we can take that, adapt it, make it Saskatchewan’s own, I think that can have a huge impact on the mental health of our students.”

Greg Ottenbreit, minister responsible for rural and remote health, said Saskatchewan has already set aside money in the budget for a pilot project based on the Alberta model.

Hopefully it will allow a mental-health worker to build a relationship with a child over time, he said.

“And then when the child does come into crisis, possibly they’ve got that relationship and that trust that the child would go to that person without a whole lot of barriers for support.”

Opposition NDP critic Trent Wotherspoon said mental-health services offered to youth now are “utterly shameful,” but the Alberta model holds promise.

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O’Soup also said his office is focused on improving graduation rates for Indigenous children. The current rate is 43.2 per cent compared with 85.4 per cent for non-Indigenous children.

“This is unacceptable and we must do something about it. And I believe that our office needs to be part of the solution moving forward.”

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