Legault encourages struggling Quebecers to pick up the phone

Quebec Premier François Legault says the government has hired 300 people — and plans to hire 300 more — to work the 811 line.

Adapting to changing health rules at root of many mental health problems, experts say

Quebec Premier François Legault says the government has hired 300 people — and plans to hire 300 more — to work the phones at Quebec's psychological services hotline. (Sylvain Roy Roussel)

As calls related to mental health problems continue to flood the province's 811 hotline, Quebec Premier François Legault says the government has hired 300 people — and plans to hire 300 more — to work the phones. 

"I know there are increasing mental health problems," Legault said at a news conference on Tuesday.

The premier said mental health has become a concern for the government and he encouraged Quebecers dealing with depression and anxiety to pick up the phone.

The wait time for 811 has diminished to a few minutes, down from several hours during the first wave of COVID-19, he said.

At the peak of the first wave last May, social workers at the 811 line answered 3,180 calls related to mental health issues, twice as many as the year before. More than one-third of those calls were directly related to COVID-19.

After a lull this summer and heightened public health restrictions in the fall, the number of calls increased again, with 2,774 in September — again doubling the number compared to last year. 

"The anxiety about the pandemic is not fading, but the sources of anxiety have changed between the first and second waves," said Paul Fortugno, a social worker and clinical co-ordinator for the 811 line. 

He says during the first wave, people were calling because they were afraid of getting infected. This time around, adapting to social changes that result from health rules are at the root, he said. 

"People are experiencing distress related to this, and they are starting to be worn out from everything surrounding COVID," he said.

Ella Amir, executive director of the family mental health support service AMI-Quebec, says it's not enough to increase the number of people working on the 811 line, because those people can only guide callers toward other mental health services. 

"I think we are probably going to see an increase of mental health manifestations, someone is going to have to deal with it, and I don't think that 811 are necessarily the best people to do that," Amir said. 

If those additional services are not sufficiently funded, "it's not going to solve the problem," she said. 

Since September, Amir says attendance at AMI-Quebec's online support groups has shot up. 

"It's probably associated with the second wave, with the upcoming winter, with the shortened days," she said. 

Preliminary results from a study into the well-being of Quebec's population during the pandemic suggest that the overall mental health of Quebecers has deteriorated, according to Université du Québec a Trois-Rivières researcher Georgia Vrakas.

"Compared to 2012, when the percentage of the population that had optimal mental health was 77.5 per cent, our sample shows that rate has dropped to 48 per cent," Vrakas said. 

Georgia Vrakas teaches psychology at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. (Radio-Canada)

The many changes to public health rules are contributing to collective anxiety, Vrakas said. 

"Human beings need to know what's ahead of them, and COVID does not allow us to have that control," she said. "The rules are constantly changing. Our knowledge is constantly changing, so it makes people insecure and it increases distress."

On Tuesday, officials could not say whether the restrictions put in place until at least Oct. 28 will be extended, even though case numbers have stabilized. 

"Quebecers have to understand that measures will stay in place until we see the number of cases go down," Legault said.

Need help?

If you or someone you know is suffering from mental health issues or suicidal thoughts, the Crisis Services Canada website is a resource. You can also call them toll-free at 1-833-456-4566 or text 45645.

With files from Radio-Canada's Valérie Gamache