Alcoholics Anonymous, mental health providers find creative ways to deliver services during pandemic

As social distancing measures are enforced to fight the spread of the coronavirus, community groups providing addiction and mental health support are finding new ways to deliver their services.

While many offices are closed, services are still being offered in a modified format during COVID-19 outbreak

Support groups are finding alternatives to in-person meetings, as social distancing is encouraged to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. (Image Point Fr/Shutterstock)

Alcoholics Anonymous usually relies on face-to-face meetings to help those who are strugging with addiction.

But hundreds of people who rely on the organization's support groups run are finding new and creative ways to connect during the social distancing forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Richard, who doesn't want his last name used, is chair of the Manitoba General Service Assembly for AA, which includes about 150 to 170 groups throughout Manitoba — just over 35 of them in Winnipeg.

He says about 30 of the groups have cancelled in-person weekly meetings for different reasons. For some it's social distancing. For others, it is members' underlying health issues.

And in some cases, meetings have been cancelled because the venue in which they are held, such as church or community centre, has been forced to close.

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Richard is impressed by how more and more groups are finding new ways to connect.

"We are calling them 'virtual meetings,' so they are using platforms like Zoom or Skype … to have meetings that way," he said. 

"I know one group that is meeting just through email. They post a topic on a Sunday and members would reply to that topic throughout the week. And of course, there are the phone calls and text messaging."

Others are even taking advantage of the opportunity to connect online with groups in other cities, such as Calgary or Kamloops.

"In an odd way, despite feeling isolated, this pandemic is connecting us in ways we haven't been connected before," Richard said.

He continues to run an in-person meeting in a room reconfigured to respect social distancing. 

Groups are smaller, reduced from the usual 15 to under 10. But he admits the change is more difficult for people who recently joined a group than for those who are already solid in their sobriety.

"It could be tricky for newcomers. How are they going to manage?" he said.

"I have a few I am keeping in closer touch with outside of the meeting, maybe checking in with them every couple of days."

'Wear and tear' on mental health

The longer the pandemic continues, the more Marion Cooper says a psychosocial response to COVID-19 will be needed.

She is the executive director of the Manitoba division of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

"It will have to start to have its wear and tear on people, on their mental health," said Cooper.

While she can't quantify the increase, but says she's seen a definite spike in the number of people with anxiety and depression being referred by their primary caregiver for cognitive behaviour coaching.

That coaching is now being done over the telephone.


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"I think there is a heightened sense of anxiety and worry for folks, and if you have been struggling with an anxiety disorder or other mental health issues, this kind of situation can exacerbate that," said Cooper.

Her organization has ramped up its social media presence, offering more strategies for people to take care of their mental health, she said.

While the association's main office is closed, Cooper says people are still working inside and no one will be turned away. 

Other groups, such as the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba and the Anxiety Disorders Association of Manitoba, have postponed group meetings and programs for the time being.

Cooper says in-person sessions are still happening for those in critical need, but those sessions are briefer and observe social distancing recommendations.

"We are doing a lot of creative approaches to help people get what they need right now. We are still offering one-on-one in a modified format," she said. 

And while health experts are suggesting the pandemic may go for several more weeks, if not months, Cooper has some advice for the long haul.

"Get enough sleep. Stay connected with family and friends. Create new routines. Exercise at home. Go for a walk or a run. Make sure you deal with your emotions around this pandemic in a healthy way, not using alcohol or drugs," she said.

"If you are feeling overwhelmed, reach out for help."