Failure to access mental health support spurs fears of post-pandemic mental health crisis: Part V of a series

MANITOULIN – Calls for mental health-related issues are down and people are not reaching out as much as they were prior to the pandemic, said Sue Tassé, manager of clinical services with Canadian Mental Health Association Sudbury/Manitoulin (CMHA). Mental health professionals are concerned there will be an echo effect in mental health and aren’t sure what that will look like.

“Based on poll results, we keep hearing that people are still worried about things,” she said. “Fears are very prevalent amongst people for all kinds of issues.” There are concerns about what that means for service delivery post pandemic; however, local organizations and healthcare providers are planning now to ensure that all mental health support needs are met.

The poll Ms. Tassé is referring to was conducted by Pollara Strategic Insights on behalf of CMHA, Ontario Division from April 16 to 23. In the poll, only 13 percent of Ontarians who identified as having a mental health condition said they’ve accessed mental health supports since the outbreak, compared to 39 percent before the pandemic, according to a CMHA media release. Nearly one third (31 percent) of those diagnosed with a mental health condition feel they do not have all the supports they need although 77 percent of those who have accessed mental health services during the outbreak say it has helped them. 

Other findings showed the things that are recommended for staying healthy during the pandemic are taking a hit. Thirty-six percent of Ontarians say their diet has gotten worse while 48 percent say exercise habits have worsened. Twenty-three percent of Ontarians are consuming more substances such as alcohol, tobacco or cannabis and among those who are consuming these substances, 29 percent have changed the time of day when they consume. 

People are also struggling to follow a daily routine. Fifty-nine percent are finding it hard to be productive while in self-isolation. This is true of those of both those who are currently employed and those not working. 

This is the new norm, suggested Ms. Tassé, and people are trying to navigate the shift that’s occurring without necessarily looking at the effects on their own mental health. “People are talking about the increase in their substance use and making light of it but that’s a significant or telltale sign that their mental health needs to have some priority,” she said. “What is the reason for the increase in substance use? Are we using it as a coping mechanism to deal with some of those underlying fears and worries and stress factors?”

The stress factors are universal. “It’s personal finance, it’s the economy, worrying about the future, the older generation and the younger generation. We’re seeing this as a global problem. As we’re coming out of this, as things are reopening, as we start to talk about the losses or the changes and the shifts and get used to things like that. That’s when that echo piece is going to start hitting, when we are going to see those trauma pieces come out of this. I don’t think we have any kind of targeted framework on it, we just know that it’s coming. Everyone’s talking about it, everybody’s getting ready for it because it’s like a calm before the storm. We’re asking, what is going to be the storm within the mental health landscape? Even before the pandemic we were stretched thin so the question is, what’s going to happen afterwards when this big kind of flood comes through?”

It’s important for people to consider mental health and wellness now as we move through these unprecedented times, both their own and those within their families and social circles, said Ms. Tassé.

One reason fewer people are calling for help is because the stigma behind mental health still exists. Everyone has mental health and wellness and it’s important to self-reflect on how these stressors are impacting you, said Ms. Tassé. “Are you on a routine or a schedule in taking care of yourself during the day? A lot of us are working from home so we get into these routines of going down to our desk and we don’t have those cues that we would normally have before the pandemic. Before the pandemic, you’d get up, go to work, have your lunches, those kinds of things. You’ve got to be cognizant and build in those cues and remember that life is now a little bit different.”

“We’ve all been encouraging everyone to maintain contact with friends and family and those within our circle. It’s really important to ask, ‘how are you doing?’ and to really mean it, to really listen for cues. Ask what’s changed for them and how are they coping with the shift in their home, their work and their recreation. Stop asking politely and really start to help other people reflect. How is the family doing? How are the kids doing? How are your parents dealing with it? These are huge adjustment periods and maintaining those contacts within our circles we can assist our circles and ourselves within those self-reflection pieces.”

We need to keep chipping away at the mental health stigma in our society by talking about mental wellness and the tools that each one of us use to either stay mentally well or look towards getting more of a balance to mental wellness, she noted. It’s okay not to be okay. 

“It doesn’t mean that they’re not going to be okay forever but people do have stressful times in their life that they may need to reach out and have third parties assist them, even if it’s just a conversation to say that what everyone is feeling is normal. These stressors are normal and it’s okay to be worried about the future. It’s okay to look at what this means for older generations or younger generations. It’s okay to ponder those questions.”

We often dismiss these feelings by saying tomorrow’s another day, she said, but it becomes more significant when those thoughts are taking over and you can’t get away from them. “That’s when you need to break the cycle and sometimes it takes that extra reaching out to help someone go through it, to process it, to break it down and to find where the impact is happening. Sometimes it’s very deep rooted and you need to bring it to the surface. You need to be cognizant of it to be able to make the shift. That’s where mental health professionals come into it. They are able to do that.” 

Everyone has different responses to stressors and there will be some that have more significant impacts than others, Ms. Tassé said. “For some it may just be certain elements of things and for some this may have huge impacts. We can’t brush everything with one common stroke. We have to use the tools that are at our disposal for mental health, connecting with each individual and finding out what it is that they need. Some may need some more intensive services whereas some may just need lower-level assistance.”

The Pollara research shows that seven out of 10 Ontarians (69 percent) believe the province is headed for a “serious mental health crisis” as it emerges from this pandemic and nearly eight out of 10 (77 percent) say more mental health supports will be necessary to help society. CMHA has been preparing for the potential increase in need post- COVID-19.

“Prior to the pandemic most services were face-to-face services or through a referral from a care provider followed by recommendations to services such as BounceBack or Big White Wall which are the virtual platforms,” she said. HERE2HELP is a new online self-referral service that provides access to services through the website for those that want to reach out when they’re struggling with something and we’re able to get back to them within one business day. CMHA was just starting to expand its reach through virtual platforms whereas now the virtual platforms are the first line, complemented by face-to-face. If anyone needs the support they are definitely still there. Sometimes people are more comfortable asking for help outside of their communities, again due to stigma.

There is no waitlist currently for CMHA Sudbury/Manitoulin services so access can be quick when people are struggling. 

The province has promised $3.8 billion over 10 years for mental health and addictions services but the investment has been slow to materialize, CMHA Sudbury/Manitoulin CEO Patty MacDonald said in the release. 

“Any mention that there’s increases in funding are welcome messages,” added Ms. Tassé. “We struggle and we continue to put the message out that there is a larger need even with the promised money. There will always be a greater need so we continue to advocate to all levels of government that mental health and addictions need to be a priority and welcome any funding or any announcements or any assistance that they can help develop for us.”

Contact CMHA Sudbury/Manitoulin at 705-672-7252 or toll free at 1-866-285-2642, or visit the website at sm.cmha.ca.