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How to reach mental health support by phone, online during pandemic

Mental health service agencies are preparing to handle increased demand during COVID-19

Mental health service agencies are preparing to handle increased demands of Albertans needing help and support in a time of social-isolation.

Nicholas Mitchell, Alberta Health Services (AHS) addiction and mental health provincial director, said while there has been a decrease in the number of people seeking help in-person, there have been more phone calls coming in through their mental health helpline at 1-877-303-2642. 

The helpline averages between 40 to 60 calls a day, Mitchell said, and saw an increase of about 60 per cent over the last week alone.

AHS recently launched its Text4Hope service, where people can subscribe for free daily texts focused on positive thinking, and had more than 2,000 people sign up within the first hour, he said.

"It seems to be increasing, so over time as people are settling in or as the stresses mount, people are reaching out more frequently."

Mitchell said the health agency is seeing "some of the same patterns" from when they provided mental health supports for other crisis situations and natural disasters now with COVID-19 as the virus continues to spread.

"Right now, what we're primarily focused on is trying to help people maintain resilience, trying to engage in preventative measures, because usually there's a delay between the crisis event and when people present for help." 

At first, people tend to reach out to ask for information on tools to manage their stress and take care of themselves. People are struggling with feeling anxious because of the pace change and disruption in their routines, and there's a sense of a lack of control, he said.

"Those concerns can create distress, they can create anxiety. Sometimes that can result in people struggling psychologically or mentally, and sometimes it can cause physical symptoms, like difficulty sleeping."

Being more moody or irritable, difficulty sleeping, or feelings of low energy, loneliness or isolation may be signs of early symptoms of mental distress, he said. It's important to recognize these feelings of stress, depression, grief and anxiety early on before they start to build up.  

A University of Alberta survey of thousands of youths in Fort McMurray found 37 per cent of those who responded showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) more than a year after the wildfire emergency ended.  

"Some of these are normal reactions to what's going on, they're kind of expected reactions considering the very unusual situation we're in. It's when those symptoms persist and they're stopping you from living your life, that's when it's troublesome."

Mitchell urges anyone having thoughts of suicide or self-harm to reach out immediately. 

This can also be a challenging time for people who are struggling with addictions because of increased stress and separation from their support network.

"They might find themselves drawn more to it as a sort of escape from the stress they're facing," he said. "If folks are feeling isolated and they have to manage these things on their own, it can be very difficult."

Domestic violence is another key area of concern for mental health physicians. 

"In times of social upheaval, we do see escalating rates of domestic violence. That is something we are concerned about as well and trying to monitor for," Mitchell said. 

Support shifts online

With social distancing and self-isolation, ways people would normally deal with stress may look different. For example, instead of seeing a therapist in person, people may receive care over the phone or through video chat. 

Krista Osborne Counselling Centre in St. Albert is offering e-counselling services. People can book appointments online and then receive a link to enter an online chatroom, where therapists can then connect with their clients through video chat, said Krista Osborne, mental health professional. 

"I actually think it's working a lot better now than it has for me in the past. And I think it's because people are just so desperate to see another human being
outside of their own circle, that I'm actually surprised at how easy the transition has been for many people."

More people could be at risk of experiencing issues around their mental health than actually contracting the disease itself, Osborne said. 

When people are self-isolating they aren't interacting with their social circles like they usually would, meaning they may not have people to point out any red flags they see in their mental health. Being at home with family can also feel like a long-winded holiday for some, leading to higher amounts of tension and stress for families, she said. 

"That's my concern is the impact this is going to have on everyone's mental health, and making sure that we're all sticking together and doing things as a community that we can to help reach out to people who are struggling," Osborne said. 

Keeping to a normal routine is really important, she said, whether it's getting up, getting dressed, making your bed and eating healthy. Social isolation could also present an opportunity to create new habits, like trying out a new exercise regime, cleaning out a messy closet or catching up with a friend over the phone, she said. 

"There's all sorts of opportunity to make this a positive experience. And if we can find a way to do that, rather than just focusing on the negativity, I think that can be very helpful for people's mental health."

Where can I find help? 

Brittany Gervais

About the Author: Brittany Gervais

Brittany Gervais joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2020. She writes about business and health, general news and features.
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