This post was contributed by Dr. Deanne Simms, President and CEO of ThriveSpace Health and Wellness, a company that enhances digital health care. She is also the Clinical Director of the Ontario Structured Psychotherapy program at the Canadian Mental Health Association – York Region and South Simcoe. We are very fortunate to have Deanne as a member of our Board of Directors.

Currently, my work spans both public and private health care systems. In my public health care role I oversee the clinical operations of the Ontario Bibliotherapy Centre of Excellence which administers Bounce Back Ontario, and the Clinician-Assisted Bibliotherapy service. In addition, I provide psychological services to a small group of individuals across the life span as a Clinical Health Psychologist in private practice. Through all of these experiences, I have certainly witnessed the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on individuals, communities, and systems within our province, and our country. Over the past few months I have worked directly with people struggling to manage the mental and physical consequences of isolation (e.g., changes to appetite or sleep patterns, tiredness and fatigue, increased worry, loneliness, and irritability). I have also tried to support my staff and colleagues who are also struggling with the same experiences while also trying to manage working from home (for some, while also trying to support their children in online learning). Finally, I have worked in earnest to continue to enhance and enable our mental health system to integrate and leverage technology in our care practices and services, as I strongly believe it is one of the most important ways to ensure Canadians are getting the care they need throughout this enduring and, now chronically stressful experience.  

This year has been one like no other: The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on communities around the world; it has unfolded to become an unprecedented global health, social, and economic crisis. We know that the pandemic has had a negative toll on the mental health of Canadians, and, as the pandemic wears on, so too does the impact on our mental health. A recent survey by CMHA and the University of British Columbia revealed that 40% of Canadians surveyed reported that their mental health has deteriorated since the onset of the pandemic. In this survey, Canadians reported high levels of anxiety, worry, stress, sadness and depression. Specifically, people reported worry about their own health and safety, and that of loved ones, social isolation, finances, and meeting the needs of their families. Greatest at risk for these experiences are people with pre-existing mental health problems, women, people who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic, those worried about personal finances, frontline workers, and people from racialized or equity-seeking populations. 

It is important to acknowledge that Canada was already in the midst of a mental health crisis prior to the pandemic. A staggering 1.6 million Canadians per year already reported unmet mental health care needs prior to the arrival of COVID-19 in our country. Although there was increasing recognition and acknowledgement of mental illness in the years and months leading up to the pandemic, wave after wave of the virus and its aftermath have laid bare systemic barriers to accessing mental health services and resources; the pandemic has highlighted pre-existing inequities in access to health care, housing, income and social supports across Canada, as well as a general deficit of resources to meet the demand for mental health services. 

Acknowledging how important mental health is to global well-being, the federal and provincial governments of Canada recognized the need to put in place measures to protect Canadians’ physical and financial safety. They quickly allocated resources and extended measures to support mental health services delivery, across the country. This allowed for a seismic shift in the mental health sector to increase access to already existing services, as well as to open doors to newer or innovative technology-mediated or virtual services.  

Included in the ever-expanding repertoire of mental health services, are a number of resource hubs for the public and health care providers, information sheets to help people to gain insight into and normalize their experiences, tip sheets for coping, as well as peer-to-peer discussion forums (i.e., Centre for Addiction and Mental Health; Mental Health Commission of Canada; Canadian Mental Health Association; Canadian Psychological Association). The Ontario government also expanded access to BounceBack Ontario, which is a skill-building program for people experiencing mild to moderate depression, stress and anxiety. In this program, people connect online and via phone with coaches who help them to work their way through CBT-based workbooks.  This and other digital services are important resources that will help to provide care to people where and when they need it most, even if they are isolating or sheltering-in-place. 

The good news is that we know that many mental health concerns and conditions are preventable or manageable with the right services and supports. Nevertheless, isolation, physical distancing, economic insecurity and concern about the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to contribute to ongoing mental health issues in the months and years ahead. As such, increased funding for mental health services should continue, as well as efforts to address the social determinants of health which are inextricably linked to mental health and wellness.