Need for mental health support
By Jenn Watt
Demand for mental health services is on the rise as Ontarians head into the eighth week since the state of emergency was called due to the coronavirus pandemic on March 17.
Canadians are feeling more isolated and more anxious than they were a month ago, according to survey findings released by the Canadian Mental Health Association to coincide with Mental Health Week, May 4 to 10. Feelings of isolation are up from 39 per cent to 47 per cent among Canadians, according to CMHA, and 49 per cent of Ontarians surveyed report feeling anxious.
With added pressure, several provincial service providers have asked the government to release emergency money as well as commit to long-term funding.
“It is critical for government to think of mental health care and addiction services as a priority in its response to COVID-19. Investments and action to support helplines and crisis services are a welcome and important short-term solution to address growing demands. However, it’s not enough,” a letter co-signed by the CEOs of Addictions and Mental Health Ontario, Children’s Mental Health Ontario, and CMHA, reads.
“Canadians will also need longer-term and more intensive clinical services and supports. Our members need funding urgently for staffing, infection control measures, long-term therapy and counselling to help prevent suicide and ensure Ontarians achieve their recovery goals.”
When the first days of self-isolation and emergency measures came into place, people weren’t necessarily seeking out mental health support, said Beverlee Groves-Foley, clinical manager of mental health services for Haliburton Highlands Health Services.
But in the weeks that followed, she said people have increasingly been relying on the services her department provides, which has modified service delivery to accommodate physical distancing protocols.
“I think when we started in COVID [precautions] people really didn’t have any idea of how long it was going to be, so our clients on our caseload at that time [said] ‘I can wait a week or two,’” Groves-Foley said. Group sessions were initially cancelled and counselling done by phone. Since that time, Zoom video conferencing has been introduced, which has provided needed relief for some clients.
“[I] ran into someone at the grocery store the other week who [said] ‘you don’t know that lifeline of being able to talk in our group has just changed my day completely,’” she said.
Groups are made up of between eight and 12 people, and there is room for more.
“Our first two weeks [after pandemic protocols came into place] we didn’t see an increase, but after the two weeks, our intake has increased,” she said, noting financial and relationship issues are the biggest concerns for clients.
If additional provincial funding were provided for mental health services, Groves-Foley said she knew exactly where it could be used.
“The plans would be, we have several people who are quite isolated, and don’t have phones, they can only text. The goal would be to be able to give them the technology, either by an iPad, laptop, even a phone, to be able to connect regularly and follow up with appointments. Right now, they don’t have any access,” she said. “They might be able to text clinicians, but you can’t talk on the phone because you don’t have the ability to do that, they only pay for a texting plan. And they could attend Zoom groups if they have the technology and speak to the food bank, those types of things.”
Clients of Point in Time Centre for Children, Youth and Parents had similar reactions to the pandemic, at first using mental health services less, perhaps as they focused their energies on adapting to the new way of life, and now re-engaging.
Times of anxiety can unearth past feelings of helplessness and trauma for some, said executive director Marg Cox, which can take weeks to balance out enough to be comfortable seeking help.
At-home learning for children can bring additional stress, even though teachers and the school board have been doing their best to make the transition easier.
“If you haven’t had success as a parent yourself at school and then you may have heightened anxiety around school, your own academic stuff, and then you’ve got all of a sudden on top of trying to deal with financial pressures, your own life stress is maybe trying to work from home, you’re also now needing to help your children with homework,” Cox said. “... Even if it isn’t something that is expected, people set expectations for themselves and want to meet them and feel badly when they’re not.”
Cox said that more funding for mental health was needed as a response to COVID-19 and looking into the future.
If additional funding were to flow to Point in Time, she said it would be best spent on technology to improve access regardless of financial status, as well as to hire more staff.
“We’ve got a waiting list and the way that we can get through the waiting list is to have additional people to be able to provide clinical mental health supports,” she said.
She noted that one positive of the pandemic is more open, honest conversations about mental health.
“All of a sudden a lot more people are talking about mental health and as we enter into Mental Health Week this week, that’s always one of our goals is to try to reduce the stigma and increase the access,” she said. “And now that the stigma is being cracked wide open with so many Ontarians experiencing it and talking about it, there’s even more need than ever to be putting some additional resources towards supporting both children and youth and adult mental health.”