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It's not a spike, this is the new normal

The demand for local mental health and addictions services has a new baseline, says the chief executive officer of CMHA Waterloo-Wellington
Mental health
Village Media file photo

There is no longer a spike in demand for local mental health and addictions services – this is the new baseline, the new normal, says Helen Fishburn, chief executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association of Waterloo-Wellington.

While calls to the agency’s Here 24/7 hotline, which provides both crisis and referral services, have been up throughout the pandemic, ebbing and flowing with the waves of COVID-19, they have remained “consistently high” since November and are now representative of the call volume to be expected.

“Each wave has become much harder. This third wave in particular has been the most bruising,” Fishburn said, pointing to the new variants of concern with higher transmissibility and lethality, resulting in more anxiety for many people.

“This has come at a time that we have already been managing this pandemic for 14 months, so we’re exhausted, we’re fed-up, we’re missing all the things that give us comfort – simple things like family dinners, going on trips with family, going to a concert or a movie, all the things that we use to keep us grounded, to give us perspective, just for our positive mental health on a day-in and day-out basis.”

In March of last year, Here 24/7 received about 4,500 calls for assistance. Last month it received roughly 6,600 calls.

“We’re really, really happy they’re reaching out,” Fishburn said. “It’s exactly what they need to do. The last thing we want is people out there struggling and suffering in silence. That is the worse-case scenario.”

About 20 per cent of calls to Here 24/7 come from someone in crisis, who needs immediate assistance, while the rest need some form of support from one of the agency’s 11 mental health and addictions service providers, she said, be it for eating disorders, out-patient or residential addictions treatment, children’s programming or more.

However, those service providers can’t keep up with the demand and wait lists are growing.

“We had some pretty significant wait lists for mental health and addictions care prior to the pandemic. We’ve never had enough mental health and addictions support for what our community needs,” Fishburn said. “We’re no different than any other part of Ontario or probably Canada. We’ve struggled with funding for mental health and addictions for years.

“Since the pandemic, that certainly has become much more significant given the change of baseline of mental health and addiction needs across our system.”

Though pleased to have received some one-time provincial and federal funding to help during the pandemic, in addition to recent budget announcements that haven’t yet funnelled down as additional local dollars, Fishburn calls for the creation of a “fully-funded and comprehensive” mental health and addictions system similar to the one offered cancer patients.

When people are diagnosed with cancer, she explained, a team of professionals take that person through the diagnosis and treatment path, whether it’s a relatively minor condition or a major one that requires years of treatment.

“You have a team that is walking you and guiding you through that, helping you sort out what you need and getting you to those treatments and supports all the way through your journey,” Fishburn said. “That’s what we need for mental health and addiction – a comprehensive and full system of care.”

All the elements of such a system already exist, the chief executive director added, noting people are receiving “excellent” care from local providers.

“We just don’t have enough of it and it’s just not organized in a way that it’s a full, comprehensive package. … There’s pockets of care rather than a system of care. We need more care so that we can address the gaps between those pockets and then we need a full, comprehensive system of care as well,” she said. “It’s definitely a jump to go from where we are now to where we need to go.”

Here 24/7 can be reached at 1-844-437-3247.