As days, weeks, and months go by, Canadians are paying the price when it comes to mental health in the era of COVID-19.

Half of Canadians have reported their mental health being in jeopardy.

The majority of Ontarians believe a “serious mental health crisis” is underway. 

KW is no exception to the matter, according to mental health services in the Region.

“Prior to the pandemic, we used to talk about one in five Canadians being impacted by a significant mental health issue,” Helen Fishburn, Executive Director of the Canadian Mental Health Association Waterloo Wellington (CMHA WW) said. 

Now though, “the number is five in five.” 

“There’s not a single person [whose] life isn’t disrupted, [who’s] not feeling more anxious, [who’s] not worried about their own health, their families, their children, their ageing parents,” she said. “The layers and layers of worry and stress and trauma are significant.” 

“Any pre-existing condition is going to be amplified, and a lot of other people are going to develop disorders through a result of all this extremely stressful, traumatizing and collective grief,” John Roche, Clinical Director for Transformation Counselling, said. 

And as the province is slowly reopening, there will be a larger desire to access mental health services, according to Debbie Engel, Director of Carizon’s Community Services.

“We’re starting to see people who are anxious about returning, and … the protocols that need to be in place to ensure that people are safe, that they’re healthy, and that things are being taken care of to ensure going back to work and maintaining their own safety,” Engel said. 

Fishburn agrees. “As the walls start to come down and the doors start to open, and people come out of this pandemic … and we start to reintroduce ourselves back to our communities and our neighbours, and our workplaces — we’re going to see more layers of that trauma and mental health than we ever have before,” Engel said.

A slow but steady increase in demand for mental health services in KW

While the demand to access KW’s mental health services was initially either stagnant or low, it began to steadily increase within a matter of weeks. 

“I think at the beginning a lot of the people were feeling overwhelmed and they were focusing on more immediate and certain physical needs [rather] than mental health,” Scott Williams said when asked why this trend was occurring. Williams is the Communications and Development Coordinator of KW Counselling Services. 

Stigma surrounding accessing mental health services, as well as switching to online platforms to comply with social distancing rules, also appear to contribute to this trend.

“There’s no shame in getting a cataract done, there’s no shame in breaking your arm,” Fishburn said. “But there continues to be shame related to mental health and addiction. People don’t fully understand that mental health is health.” 

“Unfortunately I think at the best of times there are barriers when it comes to mental health services,” Roche said. “It’s scary, and the idea of sitting down with a stranger and telling them about the stuff that you struggle with is a pretty overwhelming process for most people.”

“But then the lockdown happened, and … we’re doing all of this remotely. So then [people think] it’s going to be more awkward … to speak to somebody through a screen.”

Virtual therapy “will continue” post-pandemic

While the switch to provide therapy primarily online and virtually may have taken time to adjust to for both staff and clients, KW mental health services agree that these methods of formal support are still effective and are here to stay. 

“I think virtual [support] will continue. Being able to access services in the safety of your home has really worked for a lot of people,” Engel said. “We’ve discovered that you can completely engage in meaningful conversations and deepen relationships.”

Virtual meetings — be it for the clients, or for the staff who require training — save time as well.

“We travel to go to meetings, we travel to do collaborative approaches … I think virtual meetings are going to eliminate having to drive around for people,” Engel said.

“That will cut down their commuting time, and [provide a] little more time for family,” Roche said.

“We were quite worried about how our clients would adapt to that change,” Fishburn said. “They’ve done remarkably well. Many of them are just so pleased to continue to have their treatment … they’ve made an excellent adjustment.”

“You think that it’s going to be weird at first, and it’s not going to work, it’s going to be awkward,” Roche said. “But by and large it’s almost exactly the same as having somebody in office … our clients are thriving.”

Virtual therapy can also benefit those living remotely, according to Roche. 

“More people outside of the KW community — so rural communities, even northern Ontario — have been accessing and doing remote therapy with us now,” Roche said. “If you’re in a small town where there isn’t a therapist, or say there is a therapist and he’s like your brother’s friend, you can [now] actually go online and access excellent services that exist in urban centres.”

How some local mental health resources have changed due to COVID-19

TCE collected information on some local resources that KW residents can contact to access formal mental health services, and how they’ve adapted in abiding by social distancing rules during the pandemic.

KW Counselling Services:

A multi-service agency for 70 years, KW Counselling Services is now offering phone and video counselling. Call 519-884-0000 to book a session. Fees are usually determined by your annual family income. Video counselling and other services are offered on a sliding scale based on income and are fully covered for some individuals (see further info on coverage options below). 

Their program, OK2BME, offers free services to LGBTQ2+ people between the ages of 12-18. Visit their website to see how you can sign up in advance for their virtual Tuesday evening sessions.

Their Parenting Team, which helps parents develop skills in raising a family, is available via phone and email. Contact parentingnow@kwcounselling.com to arrange a phone appointment.

“KW Counselling Services has been working very closely with the other community mental health organizations … to offer as many services as we possibly can,” Williams said. “That’s been an important collaboration.”

To view the community mental health services they promote, click here.

Transformation Counselling:

This service is currently offering a free 30-minute online consultation for online counselling. Email info@transformationcounselling.com or call 519-954-4900 for more information. 

Sessions typically range from $125 – $150 for every 50 minutes. Counselling is also covered by most insurance benefits like Sun Life, Manulife, and Great-West Life. Student benefits through Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo also cover most counselling services. 

“You’d be surprised at how effective [online therapy] is,” said Roche. “It really works.”

Sexual Assault Support Centre Waterloo Region (SASCWR):

Having been in the Region for more than 30 years, SASCWR offers free individual counselling, online chat counselling Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9am-4pm, and Wednesdays 8pm-12am (Midnight), and a 24 hour crisis support line at 519-741-8633, to sexual violence survivors. 

Canadian Mental Health Association Waterloo Wellington (CMHA WW):

An umbrella of the CMHA, this program offers a number of services that cater to those with addictions, mental health needs, and/or developmental needs for children, youth, and adults.

“[Almost] every single discipline has switched to virtual care,” Fishburn said.   

Earlier last year CMHA launched Here 24/7 a crisis service people can call anytime at 519-821-3582, or at 1-844-437-3247 (HERE247).

“[It’s] our gateway into mental health and addictions and crisis services,” Fishburn said. “We’re the only place in Ontario to have one entry point into all Ministry-of-Health-funded addiction and mental health providers.” 

Fishburn said that although the number of community calls has increased, and the number of calls continues to remain high, even prior to the pandemic, Here 24/7 is still able to meet the demands.

“That has not changed,” she said. “All of our Here 24/7 staff are at home. They have their computers, they have their headsets.” 

“We’ve actually deployed some of our staff internally to be able to respond to that call volume, and make sure that we’re answering as many calls as possible live … that’s something our community needs right now.” 

CMHA WW also provides Here4Help, an information page about the formal and informal support they provide during the pandemic. 

Carizon:

This organization specializes in the following services: children’s mental health, youth engagement and development, family violence, individual and family counselling, credit counselling, settlement supports, and collective wellness. 

Carizon recommends calling their intake line at 519-743-6333, where you can get a 90-minute session to determine the next steps for accessing mental health services.

While the cost for counselling services is typically $125 per hour, fees are usually arranged based on family size and income. Carizon is currently working on ways to make these services less of a barrier to the community by getting funding and donations from foundations. 

Recently, Carizon launched Carizon for the Community, a website that provides resources and information on improving your mental health during the pandemic. 

“People are swamped with being home, parenting their child full-time, and home-schooling. Everyone has different needs for access to information,” Engel said. “There are hands-on strategies and resources, there’s videos that people can watch, there are activities to do with your kids. It’s really a place to be able to allow people to have control over the information they’re getting, what they want access to, and how they want to utilize it.”

Carizon also promotes Woebot, a free artificial intelligence app for those in Ontario, thanks to its funding by the Local Health Integration Networks.

“[It] provides cognitive behaviour therapy support to individuals experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety,” Engel said. 

The app was made in collaboration with experienced psychologists, data scientists, engineers and designers. The app uses an AI robot, Woebot, to chat with you and track your habits and behaviour, as well as coach and provide methods of controlling symptoms of anxiety and depression.

“It helps you work through your thought processes and change your behaviour,”  Engel said. “It’s really intuitive, it’s easy to use.” 

To get the app for free, download the Woebot app on your electronic device, and use the referral code “Ontario.” 

“A heck of a lot more” needs to be done

While KW mental health services believe both the provincial and federal government took the right step in recognizing the mental health impact, they argue more action needs to be done to address the issues that were already present prior to the pandemic.

“Everybody is recognizing the impact that this crisis has had on people’s wellness … that’s been huge,” Fishburn said. “We’ve really appreciated those messages.”

However, “we’ve always been on the backburner, in our healthcare system,” she said. 

“Through this pandemic, we’re really wanting to take [this] issue and put it right on the front burner, and have people openly and freely how much of a challenge and struggle it has been through the pandemic.”

“I think they’ve made a couple of nods … to be honest I think they could have done a heck of a lot more,” Roche said. “We talk about [the] financial impact, the physical health impact, but I don’t think there’s been very much talk about mental health needs.”

“And you can see this. The people are so confused. They’re on Instagram, they’re thinking ‘oh! I’ve got all the time! I should be writing the next King Lear.’ And you feel like shit because nobody’s explaining to them that this is devastating for your mental health.”

Funding appears to be the biggest problem, according to services.

“We have a lot of experts who can do the work but if we don’t have funding we won’t be able to provide it for people,” Williams said. “We had a waiting list before this and we still do. And I think I can say we anticipate the need growing as the conditions loosen and people are able to seek out more in-person help.”

Currently, the government of Ontario has provided $12 million in funding for expanding online and virtual health support. $2.6 million has been funded to hire mental health workers, which includes psychologists.

The federal government has pledged $240 million for new online mental and medical health services, as well as the expansion of current platforms.

“$12 million dollars across Ontario. It really doesn’t do a lot to address the overall volume and intensity of the mental health needs,” Fishburn said. “It’s a great start, we appreciate that funding. But we need so much more.” 

Fishburn also says it’s important for the government to think about what the consequences will be if those mental needs are not met.

“A lot of people will never get the coronavirus, but everybody is impacted by the mental health wake of this coronavirus,” she said.

John Roche also writes a column on mental health for TCE here.

*A previous version of this article stated that KW Counselling offered full funding for their video counselling to individuals between the ages of 12-18. The article was corrected on May 28, 2020. A statement post-publication from Williams clarified coverage:

“Video counselling is offered on a sliding scale based on income just like our other services. There are many subsidies available. For example, LGBTQ2+ youth will be fully covered. Women who have experienced domestic abuse or violence will be fully covered. People on Ontario Works or ODSP will be fully covered.”