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Mental health demands on the rise as pandemic drags on

Tara Jeffrey Sarnia’s mental health and addictions services are seeing a rise in demand as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on.
Bluewater Health. Troy Shantz file photo

Tara Jeffrey

Sarnia’s mental health and addictions services are seeing a rise in demand as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on.

“We were already in a mental health crisis prior to COVID,” said Paula Reaume-Zimmer, Integrated Vice-President, Mental Health & Addictions Bluewater Health and Canadian Mental Health Association. “So, that certainly hasn’t changed and in fact, the demand has increased.”

Reaume-Zimmer said the early months of the pandemic saw many people ‘retreat’ from seeking care for their mental health, causing many conditions to worsen over time.

“What we’re seeing in the community is the level of acuity is much worse, so we’ve missed the opportunity for early intervention.”

She said outpatient psychiatry referrals for those who present in the emergency department have doubled.

Even more concerning is the dire need for more residential withdrawal management treatment, said Reaume-Zimmer, noting that while much of the hospital operated at lower capacity in recent months, the seven-bed interim unit has remained at full occupancy.

“In fact, in just the last two weeks, we’ve had approximately 150 calls recorded, and 50% of those had to be told we were full,” she said of the unit, opened in 2018 to help tackle the region’s crippling opioid crisis while the community awaits work on a permanent, 24-bed standalone facility since requests were first sent to the province more than 15 years ago.

The seven beds are “just not enough,” she said.

“We’ve been working closely with the Ministry of Health to expand our residential withdrawal management services, but the demand has far exceeded what we are able to offer right now.

“Moving along that process is more urgent than it ever has been.”

Canadian Mental Health Association Lambton-Kent CEO Alan Stevenson said the agency has seen a significant increase in demand for services since June.

“So, more people than over the last two years certainly; more people than any year…we know that people are concerned about some pretty big issues,” he said, pointing to worries about the elderly and those vulnerable to COVID-19, especially in long term care homes; concerns about children, as well as uncertainties around employment and income.

A recent survey released by Lambton Public Health said one third of residents are worried about their job or financial security, that they will be able to pay the bills, and will be able to provide for themselves and their families. In fact, half of Ontarians are reporting increased mental health and/or addictions challenges as a result of the pandemic, according to Ipsos research.

“And then there’s the broader, ‘what does the future actually look like?’” he added. “That’s sort of an overarching concern or worry. It’s such an unknown; none of us have really imagined or can figure out what it’s all going to look like.”

He pointed to recent research that shows a high percentage of Ontarians believe the longer the pandemic lasts, the more challenging it will be not only for their own mental health, but also the people they care about.

He’s hoping a new program developed by CMHA Ontario called BounceBack ( will be a helpful tool for people struggling with mild to moderate depression and anxiety, stress or worry during the pandemic. It’s a free skill-building, cognitive behavioural therapy-based program delivered over the phone with a coach and through online videos.

One success story, Reaume-Zimmer noted, has been the local Mental Health Engagement and Response Team (MHEART) which recently marked its one-year anniversary.

The mobile crisis intervention team includes nurses specializing in mental health care that work with the Sarnia Police, OPP and Bluewater Health, and has been a huge success, she said.

Out of some 615 calls in the last year, only 38 individuals were brought to the emergency department.

Without an MHEART team, all 615 calls would have ended up there, she said.

In fact, police jurisdictions across the province have been reaching out in hopes to replicate the program.

“So, innovative approaches like that in the community — that’s what’s going to make a significant impact on our hospital demand in emerge and in mental health,” she said. “And more importantly, on the patient experience.”

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