06/11/2012 03:46 EDT | Updated 08/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Aboriginal children turn to ERs for mental health care

Children from First Nations and low-income families are more likely to use Alberta emergency rooms for mental health care, according to a University of Alberta study.

"We found that more First Nations children (arrived at) emergency departments for disorders secondary to substance abuse and intentional self-harm than other children, and that, compared with other children, First Nations children returned more quickly to the emergency department and had a longer time before visiting a physician in the post-crisis period," said Amanda Newton, researcher in the departments of pediatrics and psychiatry.

The study, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, found that aboriginal and impoverished children often turn first to emergency departments for help with anxiety or stress-related disorders or issues arising from alcohol or drug abuse.

"Visits to the emergency department for mental health care should be considered a 'stop gap' solution in the full suite of mental health services," the study said.

The researchers said this shows more resources are needed in schools and communities to treat mental issues before they become crises.

The study looked at more than 30,000 emergency room visits across Alberta between Apr. 1, 2002 and Mar. 31, 2008.

In the six years, First Nations children represented 6% of the province's pediatric population, but accounted for 13.8% of the visits for emergency mental health care; while children from families on welfare made up 3% of the population, but accounted for twice that number in emergency health care visits.

The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Alberta, Women and Children's Health Research Institute, Alberta Health Services, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, IWK Health Centre and Dalhousie University.