As we face the 9th month of living with the coronavirus and its multiple disruptions of people’s lives, livelihoods, and wellbeing, we are mindful of the fact that this past October 10 was World Mental Health Day. We turned to Susan Davis, Executive Director of the Gerstein Crisis Centre for a better understanding of how COVID-19 has been affecting the mental health of Torontonians, and what resources and options are available to those facing new or increasing emotional strains during this challenging period.
The Gerstein Crisis Centre offers round the clock support to people who find themselves grappling with mental health and addiction dilemmas. The Gerstein Centre’s “low barrier approach” means people can access services when and how they need them, confidentially and without need of a doctor’s referral. The responsiveness, compassion, and skill of those staffing the Centre’s 24-hour phone line and 24-hour mobile crisis teams, both of which are rarities in Canada, have proven life-saving. The Gerstein Centre also offers a variety of wellness-bolstering programs, both in-person and online, including an outdoor exercise program called FRESH – Finding Recovery through Exercise, Skills, and Hope, and online Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) groups lasting eight to ten weeks, where participants share what has helped their recovery and develop a wellness plan. The programs are led by peers who understand the issues people may be facing due to their own experiences with crisis and mental health.
When asked how the pandemic has affected the nature of the calls that the Centre receives, Susan Davis commented, “The real story is the inequities, COVID has amplified those inequities. In terms of mental health, we also want to be careful not to pathologize it. This is a difficult time. It’s emotional for people. It doesn’t have to be clinicalized into a mental health issue for it to be difficult on us emotionally and psychically to go through a pandemic that has kept us all isolated from each other.”
She notes that call volume increased dramatically early in the pandemic in part because of the decreased availability of all kinds of in-person services, and also the anxiety, uncertainty, and fear that people were feeling due to COVID.
The most important factors that have underpinned an increase in calls to the Centre have been social isolation, concerns related to mental health and addiction, concerns around other physical health issues, and financial worries. As a proportion of the rationale for calls to the crisis line, social isolation increased from 43% to 68% during the pandemic period.
The crisis calls during the pandemic have also revealed ways that the pandemic has widened and made more visible the chronic deficits in mental health services in our society, and the social inequalities — with more disadvantaged communities, such as people with less secure employment and incomes, bearing the brunt. Access to psychological counselling is partly a question of what one can afford.
To help address these gaps, the Gerstein Centre has increased a number of its services. For example, in partnership with other service agencies, it has offered new WRAP groups for people living with mental health and addiction concerns including a group for Italian-speaking seniors, a group offered in Spanish, a group for frontline workers, as well as a group tailored to those dealing with substance abuse. The Centre has also partnered with WoodGreen Community Services to coach seniors in the use of digital communication technology, with great success.
Concerning the Centre’s FRESH program, which moved outdoors this past summer, Susan observes: “I really do think the social component and connection to community are very valuable to people… especially for those who are living in boarding homes, where they may have been kind of confined to their room in terms of keeping physical space and isolation just to reduce the spread of COVID. The ability to get outside and to be with somebody, and doing physical activity, made a big, big difference for them…We’ve seen people make some incredible changes in their lives, and then other people who have been participating for a number of years now and who really value it as part of their wellness plan.”
What can residents of St. James Town do for a loved one, friend or acquaintance they think may be struggling with mental health? In addition to advising the person that they give the Gerstein Centre a call, Susan suggests they can also call the crisis line themselves to get more specific advice for the person they’re concerned about. But just as importantly, she counsels, “Sometimes we think we need to have a solution or an answer, but spending time, being with, sitting with, hearing, and listening to what somebody is going through, can go a long way toward helping that individual cope with what is going on.”