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The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) in Nova Scotia says the pandemic has been a “tipping point” for Canadians who never experienced mental health issues before and it has made life even more difficult for the poor, homeless, and people experiencing mental illness and addictions. 

The demand for CMHA services that help vulnerable people with food and housing issues, access to medical treatment, and suicide prevention have “quadrupled” since the State of Emergency was declared last March, according to executive director Pamela Magee.

 A CMHA/University of British Columbia survey of more than 3,000 people released a month ago found 40% of Canadians say their mental health has deteriorated since the pandemic began. In Nova Scotia that percentage is closer to 48%, Magee told the Legislative Committee on Community Services yesterday. She said Nova Scotia also leads the country in the rate of increase for substance abuse related to alcohol and cannabis but provided no statistics. (The CMHA study reported 17% of Canadians indicate they have increased their drug and alcohol use as a means of coping with COVID-19.) 

Gaps in providing timely access to mental health services were there before the pandemic and have continued through out the pandemic, noted Magee. 

“We are hearing from people unable to secure timely treatment. Many people who had the ability to access online supports [increased by the provincial government during this period] feel that the online support isn’t giving them the care they need,” said Magee. “We are hearing this as well from those who are contemplating suicide and have lost hope. They feel there isn’t a door they can walk through to receive timely and adequate care.”

Dark thoughts

Beverley Cadham is a co-director for the CMHA in Halifax-Dartmouth. She underlined the importance of providing faster access to mental health treatment when she told the politicians a painful story about her son, Seamus. 

“I lost him in 2017 to suicide as a result of his mental health and addiction issues,” she said. “He sought out help and thought he was placed on a waiting list. When he phoned back, he hadn’t even been put on the waiting list. He waited three months to hear from them. The crisis got worse and worse and he needed help beyond what I could provide. I am not a psychologist, I am not a psychiatrist. I work at the grassroots level helping people just get through.”

The committee heard numbers from the CMHA survey that suggest the percentage of Nova Scotians who have had suicidal thoughts rose to 4% this fall from 2.4% in the spring. Among people already struggling with mental health issues, the percentage jumps to 10%. 

Cadham and other CMHA managers who spoke to the committee urged the MLAs to consider increasing the amount of the provincial Health budget that provides mental health treatment and addiction services. In Nova Scotia that is less than 5% while the national average is 7%. Both the Nova Scotia Association of Social Workers and the NDP have urged the province to allocate 10% of the Health budget to mental health and addictions.

CMHA Halifax-Dartmouth co-director Margaret Murray said increasing the amount of money spent at the front end — intervening when people first experience stress, anxiety, or severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia — would save the health system money later when more expensive (and perhaps lifelong) treatment and supports like housing are required.

CERB fallout

Affordable housing is a big issue across the province. CMHA is intimately involved because of its connections to people it is trying to help. The committee heard a plea from Margaret Murray asking the McNeil government to direct case workers at Income Assistance not to cut off people receiving welfare cheques. Murray said despite their advice to clients on income assistance or disability not to apply for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), some did anyway. 

CMHA is fielding more calls, Murray said, from single people “who were understandably tempted by the $1,000 a month when they were receiving $850 on Income Assistance” and “had to think twice before buying a coffee at Tim’s.” She noted there are very few one-bedroom apartments available for under $800 a month. Confusion about when the CERB would end or how much money recipients would have to pay back has led to another issue. Some people now can’t pay their rent because CERB is over and they have lost their Income Assistance. Murray described re-applying for income assistance as “a cumbersome process” that involves detailed paperwork, including obtaining a doctor’s letter.

The responsibility for helping people find adequate housing falls to Laurel Taylor, CMHA housing director. Here’s part of what she told the Committee: 

Housing was big issue before COVID and COVID just brought it to a bigger head. It’s hard to find housing for people with addictions. We are seeing people that maybe never had mental health issues before. Suddenly there is a job loss and they can’t afford where they are living and that impacts their mental wellness. I think this will be a bigger issue as time goes on. 

Right now, if I have someone who is going to be homeless, my only option is to send them to a shelter. From 9am to 9pm, what do they do during the day? If the person is on income assistance and has a medical disability, I can ask Income Assistance to put them in a motel. That’s what we have. A mental disability doesn’t qualify.

Last but certainly not least, there’s the impact on children living in difficult family situations. The backlog in family court cases due to earlier COVID delays is increasing stress around custody and foster care. Susan Henderson is the director of the Colchester-East Hants CMHA, where 100 children participate in a Youth Outreach program funded by Community Services. 

“Those children who are in care or in crisis already, who don’t know where they may be next year, we have seen greatly increased anxiety levels,” she said. “More acting out behaviours and more of a concern about the world being a place of doom and gloom with no optimism for the future. And of course, this concern gets translated into more suicide attempts which we are seeing increasing among youth we support.”

Forty percent of CMHA’s budget comes from donations. The organization has received COVID-related grants from several government agencies that have allowed it to retain staff and keep providing services to people during this dark period. But the agency says in the absence of stable core funding, it doesn’t have the means to rapidly expand its services to meet the growing demand.

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Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. If a reasonable amount of time with a therapist (especially a psychologist) and guaranteed/timely access to psychiatry services was actually fully covered under MSI it would save the system so much money overall every year

    Lets add dentistry and optometry to the list while we are at it. Other than minimal dispensing fees, we should not be paying out of pocket for medical care period