SASKATOON -- Saskatchewan's Auditor General is highlighting ways the Saskatchewan Health Authority can improve how it treats patients at risk of suicide in northwest Saskatchewan.

In her 2019 report, Judy Ferguson said the SHA makes emergency and mental health services available in northwest Saskatchewan to identify and treat patients at risk of suicide, but has failed to rationalize whether the services are accessible "where most patients need them."

In most cases, the SHA follows the correct suicide-related policies in its facilities in northwest Saskatchewan, however "staff are not always following them," according to the report.

"One-third of the patients who died by suicide ages 11 and older visited an emergency department one month prior to their death," Ferguson told media Thursday.

"For example, in 23 files tested, the Office found three instances where emergency department staff did not seek psychiatric consultation for patients with a high risk of suicide prior to their discharge."

Ferguson highlighted North Battleford, Meadow Lake, and La Loche.

For the last three years, suicide rates in those communities have been higher than the provincial average, she said.

The NDP MLA for Athabasca, Buckley Belanger, said the report reinforces what Indigenous leaders have been saying for years – that mental health services in northern Saskatchewan are sporadic, with some vacancies still open, forcing patients to seek help away from home.

"They get shipped away from their families, away from their support base, and shipped to southern Saskatchewan where some of the facilities are," Belanger said.

Ferguson also recommended the SHA improve video conference to provide better psychiatric services to remote communities.

Half of the Telehealth appointments in northwest Saskatchewan were canceled by patients, the report found.

The report suggests the SHA needs to:

• Offer ongoing staff training for assessing and managing suicide risk

• Conduct psychiatric evaluations for emergency department patients with high suicide of risk, as required

• Consistently follow up with patients at risk of suicide after emergency department discharge

• Address barriers to effective use of telehealth for psychiatric consultations

• Determine reasons why patients miss scheduled outpatient service appointments

• Conduct risk-based file audits of patients at risk of suicide and periodically inspect the safety of facilities

The report comes as Indigenous leaders in Saskatchewan call for more long-term solutions to deal with what one chief has said is a suicide crisis.

Ronald Mitsuing of the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation at Loon Lake, about 360 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon, met with provincial ministers recently after three people died by suicide, including a 10-year-old girl, and eight people attempted to take their own lives in the span of several weeks.

"We're certainly putting new staff into our northern communities and I think it's just incumbent on us to make sure that they have the tools to all access in health care," Government Relations Minister Warren Kaeding told media in Regina.

The provincial government has accepted the auditor's recommendations and says it will look at other parts of the country for ways to implement them.