British Columbia

B.C. spending $5M to boost virtual mental-health services

B.C. is spending $5 million to expand existing mental health services and launch new virtual programs to help British Columbians cope with the pandemic, as ongoing isolation and increasing financial stress weigh heavily on the population's shoulders.

Worries about health, finances and the future weigh heavy on minds during pandemic

A man sits by himself at the Vancouver International Airport on March 17. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

B.C. is spending $5 million to expand existing mental health services and launch new virtual programs to help British Columbians cope with the pandemic, as ongoing isolation and increasing financial stress weigh heavily on the population's shoulders.

The funding, announced Thursday, will also increase access to support for Indigenous communities and people living in remote and rural parts of the province. 

"Everyone is experiencing stress, anxiety, depression and disconnection from what the world was supposed to be," Premier John Horgan said Thursday.

"We need to step up and make sure that the COVID-19 pandemic is not going to adversely affect our mental wellness." 

Experts have warned uncertainty over daily life, whether it be about health, jobs, families, finances or future, will trigger and exacerbate mental illnesses across the population — especially as so many have lost the comfort of physical contact and social interaction with loved ones.

The enhanced virtual mental health services will focus on front-line health care workers as well as adults and young people. 

Online counselling services like BounceBackBC are free with no referral required. Other services like FoundryBC, which supports people aged 12-24, will now be available throughout the province by voice, video and chat. 

B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy in January 2018. The ministry has been working on a plan to support the public and health-care professionals as COVID-19 takes a toll on mental health across the province, according to the premier. (Darly Dyck/Canadian Press)

"It's impossible to put a number on it ... but there's quite a bit of capacity in there," said B.C. Minister of Mental Health Judy Darcy.

"We fully recognize that, too much through our history, access to mental health care or addiction support has depended on the size of your bank account. We're working to change that and these programs, the overwhelming majority of the ones I've referred to today, are free or very, very low cost."

There is also a new, online hub for psychological support for health-care workers. Darcy said roughly 200 psychologists have already volunteered to help.

The boost comes hours after Statistics Canada confirmed the COVID-19 crisis caused more than one million jobs across the country last month, including 132,000 in one week in B.C.

"Losing a job, losing a business can be the most life-changing and stressful thing that any of us will ever experience and that's one of the reasons why we recognize that there needs to be more mental-health supports for people," Darcy said.

For isolated seniors who do not have access to technology to use virtual support, Darcy recommended they call the 211 phone line. The support service matches seniors who need help with volunteers.

Calls to support lines spike

Since the outbreak escalated in B.C. last month, call-takers working at mental-health support phone lines throughout B.C. have seen calls spike, with volume in some regions as much as 140 per cent higher than normal.

Sandro Galea, dean at Boston University's School of Public Health, told CBC News those with a history of mental illness and other marginalized people are more at risk, but pandemic-related stressors like job loss and poor health will affect the broader population.

Volunteers at the Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Centre of B.C in Vancouver are available to talk 24/7 to talk to people who want to talk about how they feel. (Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Centre of B.C)

"I think it's actually very important that we are recognizing that mental illness is going to be the next wave of this epidemic and I think it's very important that we de-stigmatize mental illness," Galea said.

Galea said uncertainty around when life will return to normal, in particular, has driven anxiety to a head. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday said Canadians need to prepare for the long haul, with a number of smaller waves of outbreaks expected for months after the country has passed its initial peak.

That could mean at least one year of physical distancing, on and off.

"Normality will not come back, full-on, until we get a vaccine," the prime minister said Thursday. "This is difficult news ... The reality of COVID-19 will still be with us."

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca.  

With files from Eva Uguen-Csenge

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