Health-care providers adapt to meet increased demand for mental health supports in N.S.

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WATCH: Health-care providers say they've had to adapt their services to meet a rising demand for mental health support amid the coronavirus pandemic – Sep 4, 2020

There has been a steady increase in calls to the Provincial Mental Health Crisis Line since the pandemic began.

The Nova Scotia Health Authority reported a 35 per cent increase in calls this past July compared to the same month in 2019.

The increase in demand for mental health supports has caused health-care providers to adapt their services to meet the needs of their patients.

“Telephone-based and video-based care is something for mental health, that I’ve been doing quite a bit of during this time,” said Dr. Ajantha Jayabarathan, a Halifax-based family physician who has been practicing for nearly 30 years.

Read more: Halifax’s IWK now offering virtual mental health care

Jayabarathan says she expected the need for mental health supports to increase and has completed new training to meet the needs of her patients.

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“It’s called the Primary Care Mental Health program. It really trained me so that I had capacity, certainly, to offer to my patients,” Jayabarathan.

Jayabarathan says throughout the early stages of her career, mental health was underfunded and left people waiting for lengthy periods of time to access services.

She says that’s changed in recent years and credits the health authority for improvements to online supports.

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“Nova Scotia health has recently launched their online mental health platform which has a number of self-management tools,” said Jayabarathan.

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She also points to a new central referral service as being a positive step towards streamlining patient intake.

“During this period of time, when I have had to refer people to the mental health system, the intake happened very quickly, and patients got triaged fairly quickly. We’re in the early stages of that but so far that has been a really good support,” she said.

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Jayabarathan says patients have reached out because of a wide range of challenges, often exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Fear going out of their homes, or there was a financial strain, or a fear of a loved one being sick. And I certainly had patients where they were in the Portapique area. So, after the shooting happened there was a significant amount of relapse of post-traumatic stress symptoms,” she said.

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A Halifax based mental health association that staff describe as ‘grass roots,’ has had its office closed for many months due to the pandemic.

The Halifax branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association [CMHA] has adapted their services to meet the needs of the community by connecting with people through telephone and virtual chat, often supporting those most vulnerable to hardships caused by COVID-19 and a lack of health equity.

“They don’t have the money to go out and join the Sportsplex, or Dalplex, or whatever. So, those types of things that we take for granted, and hopping in a car and going away for a long weekend, those are not opportunities that they have because they’re living on a very basic, limited income,” Bev Cadham said, a program coordinator at CMHA Halifax.

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Cadham says many of their members struggled with heightened levels of isolation, particularly due to not being able to communicate with people through the internet because they can’t afford it.

READ MORE: Nova Scotia and New Brunswick minimum wages ‘well below’ a livable wage: report

A service, she says, should be paid for through income assistance, due to how essential it is to daily life.

“Data and internet services are not a privilege, they are a right,” she said.

Cadham says many of her members couldn’t access available supports that were online because they don’t make a liveable wage.

“In COVID, most of the services that were provided were either over the phone, or through Zoom chats. If you don’t have internet you can’t do a Zoom chat and you can’t even do it on your phone, if you don’t have data,” she said.

Cadham says people who typically relied on public places like libraries for access to WiFi, were unable to do so for months, while everything was locked down.

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Jayabarathan hopes the changes made to increase access to mental health supports help improve the overall system.

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“I would like to know how responsive the system was and I should hope that the health authority would be having that kind of data. In order to understand what their own gaps are in terms of meeting that increased demand for services,” she said.

The health authority says they can’t provide data for how many calls receive follow-up care at this time.

If you are experiencing mental distress or a crisis, the 24-hour provincial mental-health crisis line is: 1-888-429-8167 (toll-free).

The IWK mental health and addictions intake service can be contacted toll-free at 1-855-922-1122.

The number for the Mental Health Mobile Crisis Team is: 902-429-8167 or 1-888-429-8167.