April 14, 2020
People living in rural and remote areas in Canada have long faced reduced accessibility to health services, especially mental health services. In Nova Scotia, where I grew up and work as a mental health advocate, more than 60% of the population live outside of cities, but most healthcare resources are still only available in the metro regions. This is a huge barrier to positive health for those living in smaller municipalities, rural, and remote communities, who often face a shortage of physicians, hospital and medical centre closures, and a lack of mental health services.
The emergence of COVID-19 has made inaccessibility to in-person mental health services a reality for everyone. In a monumental effort to limit the spread of the virus, all levels of government have enforced physical distancing, and non-essential services have been shut down. Hospitals and service providers are observing strict protocols, including limiting visits to essential care only. Many of those in need of mental health services are no longer able to access in-person therapy, support groups, counsellors, mental health nurses, and other services that are paramount for our mental wellbeing.
Over the last few weeks, many young people have lost access to supports that they depend on; an issue that’s familiar in rural areas where medical centres have either closed or don’t exist, forcing residents to travel great distances in order to receive care. Many are finding it hard to cope with isolation, the worry about restricted resources, and the threat of reduced or lost income, which could make it difficult to afford the mental health services they require. The widespread shutdown is unprecedented, but it’s important to remember that the complete lack of access to in-person support is not. For those living in rural and remote communities, this is a continued reality.
As a mental health advocate, I work to raise awareness about the lack of accessibility in rural and remote areas and promote online resources, peer, and community support. I am currently part of an outreach project that will promote awareness about accessible resources for youth living in rural and remote areas of Nova Scotia. This project aims to address a common problem among young people across Canada: a lack of knowledge about how to access alternative support streams. Now that the shift to virtual life has brought these issues to the front line, people are beginning to understand the importance of having telephone, video, and other online supports in place.
The surge in online communication over platforms like Zoom and Google Hangouts has coincided with the development and rollout of digital and telephone mental health supports and the widespread sharing of mental health resources across digital spaces. Kids Help Phone has seen a 300% spike in demand for their services in recent weeks, which prompted the federal government to pledge $7.5 million in aid to the organization. It’s a decent start; we needed to take action before, and we definitely need to now. These developments are a welcome change, but if we have always had the capability to provide help and resources virtually — and those resources have always been desperately needed by those in rural and remote communities — I can’t help but be frustrated that it took a global pandemic, and many lives lost unnecessarily, for us to start the shift.
Now that we’re paying attention to the importance of developing online, telephone, and video support, let’s remember that rural and remote areas often face a gap in mental health literacy and accessibility. Even within big cities, services are often marred with problems, leaving too many young people waiting for months to receive essential mental health care. To start the shift in the right direction, we need to provide education devoted to mental health. That education needs to teach young people the basics of mental health, but it also needs to explain how to understand and access a variety of mental health resources that are available to each community. That might be psychologists, physicians, Elders, online resources, or other community supports. Awareness of, and access to, these resources will make a vast difference for everyone, but especially those struggling in rural or remote areas. For that to happen, we need buy-in from decision makers at every level so that our education and mental health care systems are able to work in tandem and ensure that every young person knows about the mental health resources available.
In the meantime, we all have a part to play. We can share online mental health resources that people aren’t aware of and provide support to our friends and family while remaining physically distanced. If you’re not sure how to support someone who you think may be struggling with their mental health, you can check out Be There for guidance on how to provide support and keep everyone safe. Kids Help Phone also runs a text, chat, and phone service where young people can access mental health support. This is an excellent resource for all young people, especially those who may not have peer or community support readily available to them. Jack.org, along with School Mental Health Ontario and Kids Help Phone, recently launched the COVID-19 Youth Mental Health Resources Hub, where any young person can learn about protecting their own mental health and that of others amidst the stress of COVID-19.
An impressive number of mental health resources have been deployed to address the spike in mental health struggle that young people are experiencing. It’s my hope that this is just the beginning and that those resources will be maintained and expanded to help people living in rural and remote communities get the support they’ve been missing for far too long. There is a youth mental health crisis of access in Canada. Young people are reeling and do not have access to the support they need. COVID-19 is highlighting our lack of mental health resources. While it’s not ideal that we needed a pandemic to have attention focused on Canada’s youth mental health crisis, I hope it brings us into a new era where we prioritize young people's mental health. We need that now, and moving forward. Physical health is something that we all have. Mental health is something that we all have. Well-being is something we all deserve. By implementing online tools and services, we create a foundation for the well-being and positive mental health of everyone, no matter where they live.