06/22/2012 05:07 EDT | Updated 08/22/2012 05:12 EDT

Teens with anxiety and depression can skip referrals

Teens and young adults in Ontario with depression and anxiety disorders are gaining faster access to psychiatric care in a program that is drawing national attention.

Up to a quarter of teens and young adults experience depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders but many go undetected and untreated, in part because of long waiting lists to see specialists.

"I would spend days by myself in my room, I wouldn't want to leave the apartment," recalled Jodie, who was 16 when she said her life first began to feel out of control. "I'd get this overwhelming anxiety."

Jodie, which is not her real name, missed school and used drugs and alcohol to try to make herself feel better when she believed she was in a "really dark and awful place."

Jodie was helped by a unique program at London Health Sciences Centre that involves a team of mental health specialists including psychiatrists, psychologists and an addictions specialist. People aged 16 to 26 can pick up the phone and get a mental health assessment, bypassing the need for a doctor's referral or enduring a long waiting list.

Young people are seen within a week or two and if they need treatment, they get it within weeks instead of months.

Dr. Elizabeth Osuch, a psychiatrist at the hospital, created the program to help get young patients get back on track as soon as possible.

"If you take those formative years and let's say you impair them for a year out of that, you're really going to mess up the foundation on which they're going to build the rest of their work life, their relationship life, their career life," Osuch said.

It's hoped that approach will help the mental health care system to save money by reducing emergency room visits, hospitalizations and disability benefits.

Early treatment can prevent mild or moderate mental illnesses from becoming chronic and derailing lives, agreed Dr. Stan Kutcher, an internationally known specialist in adolescent mental health at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

"If we really want to make substantive inroads in improving mental health care and improving the mental health of Canadians we have to make investments in the early ages," Kutcher said.

Osuch's program now treats up to 250 young people a year, but its funding is tenuous.