When 15-year-old Kelsey started cutting herself and talking about ending her life, her mother sought help at a Calgary hospital.

But Pamela, who asked that her family’s last name be withheld, said it took her two long years to find a specialist who could address Kelsey’s mental health issues.

“She had cut herself to the point where she needed 126 stitches and she still couldn't get in front of a psychiatrist,” Pamela told CTV News. “There were many points where I didn't know if she would be there the next day or not … Her mental health issues were that severe and nobody could do anything for me.”

Each time Pamela took her daughter to the emergency department, Kelsey would be assessed by an ER nurse and physician, or sometimes a psychiatric doctor on duty, but was usually quickly discharged. Pamela said getting long-term psychiatric care for her daughter seemed impossible. She tried to find help by phoning different agencies, but found the mental health system to be a complex web of providers that seemed fragmented and disconnected from one another.

Kelsey is among the estimated one million Canadian children who’ve experienced mental health disorders that make it difficult for them to function. But research shows that fewer than 25 per cent will receive proper treatment.

Many children and youth wait months or longer to see a psychiatrist, even though doctors know that timely access to mental health care is crucial to preventing long-term illnesses.

A study of youth mental health services in Canada found that 40 per cent of agencies rarely or never meet the one-month maximum wait time for care, set by the Canadian Psychiatric Association. And families are paying the price.

“For the most part I felt numb,” Kelsey told CTV News in an interview about her struggles.

“Hurting myself was a way to try to get attention for the help I needed."

Dr. Chris Wilkes, president of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry who works at the Alberta Children’s Hospital, said there is a chronic shortage of child and youth psychiatrists across the country.

“You can have a wait of 30 to 60 days for a psychiatrist,” he said. “In other centres, you may have a year (long) wait list.”

Experts say it’s difficult to track wait times for psychiatric services because they are not officially and consistently recorded across the country, unlike other medical treatments such as orthopedic services and cardiac care.

Psychiatrists are the ones who diagnose mental illnesses and prescribe medication and follow-up care. Canada needs about 1,500 child psychiatrists, but there are currently only about 500 of them. Half of those are nearing retirement.

“We still are terribly underfunded when it comes to core services,” Dr. Wilkes said, adding that health officials are trying to remedy the problem with telehealth services and providing consultations via video link in remote communities.

When Kelsey finally did see a specialist, she received much-needed therapy. She is now back in school and feeling stronger.

“She still struggles with a lot of depression, a lot of anxiety panic attacks, but it is getting there," her mother said.

Canadian hospitals are now trying to recruit more psychiatry specialists from around the world, while trying to make it easier for parents to get fast and effective help for their children.

With a report from CTV’s medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip