Nova Scotia Health eyes expansion of online mental health services
Proposed program would be directed at people with mild to moderate anxiety and depression
A form of virtual mental health care could soon be made available each year to as many as 2,000 Nova Scotians who are looking for immediate help.
Amanda Hudson-Frigault, a consultant at the health authority on e-mental health and substance use, said the service is ideal for those with mild to moderate symptoms of anxiety and depression.
The current wait for an initial assessment for in-person mental health services in Nova Scotia averages more than a month, but the new program would be available with no wait.
It's called internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy, or iCBT, and includes a self-directed program with an option for personal coaching.
Hudson-Frigault said ideally, this type of early intervention prevents mental health concerns from turning into complex issues that need intensive treatment.
"Having these tools and resources available free online is really intended to provide another tool in people's tool belts that in the end, hopefully, as evidence has shown, could prevent someone from escalating to the degree where perhaps they [would] need to see someone in person," Hudson-Frigault said.
The program, which is currently out to tender, would be the latest in a group of internet-based mental health care services from Nova Scotia Health.
Interest and participation in online resources soared during the pandemic, said Hudson-Frigault, but the work to make them available predates COVID-19. The health authority started redesigning its website in 2019 to host more mental health resources.
"We knew that this is what the community is really looking for. Based on responses from individuals, this is really how people are interested in receiving health information and receiving support."
She said she expects to see online mental health care options continue to expand.
That's good news to Penny Corkum, a professor in the departments of psychiatry, psychology and neuroscience at Dalhousie University. She was an early adopter of virtual mental health interventions.
Corkum started developing online psychology tools for children and families about a decade ago as part of her research on sleep and behavioural issues among children with neurodevelopment disorders. Corkum said she's a proponent of internet-based care options because they make mental health care more easily accessible.
"To come in for mental health [care] and take time off of work and come in for an hour, maybe travel, maybe have to get child care … it's a lot of barriers and pretty hard for families to do because everybody is so busy," Corkum said.
"I really love e-health because parents can access the interventions when it works for them, any time of night or day."
Corkum said before the pandemic, she found it hard to garner attention and interest in online mental health care, but with the onset of COVID-19 restrictions, "that changed overnight."
She said she hopes the health authority's new push for internet-based therapy is a sign that the pandemic has created a permanent shift in the delivery of mental health care.
"It doesn't mean we don't need real-life therapists, because we do. But I do really believe there are many people who would benefit from these e-health interventions."
Corkum said virtual tools have allowed her to scale up her practice. Instead of providing treatment face-to-face to just six people in a day, she said her virtual tools can instead serve thousands.
Hudson-Frigault said it would be hard to draw a direct causal link between any of the health authority's online programs and changes in wait times, but she said it's a boon that the online tools are available immediately, and can be used while people wait for in-person services.