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Community Update: Mental health and addictions during COVID-19


In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, there has been a great deal of guidance and recommendations from public health officials about how to protect our physical health from COVID-19. We also know how extremely important it is support the mental health of our entire community through this crisis. 

Almost two-thirds of Ontarians (67%) feel that the mental health impacts of COVID-19 are going to be serious and lasting. Almost three quarters (74%) feel that Ontarians are experiencing increased mental health and addictions challenges as a result of COVID-19.

While COVID-19 has had a serious and lasting impact on every single one of us, those who live with substance use or mental health challenges are struggling behind closed doors—disconnected from their normal support networks.

For many weeks now, United Way East Ontario has been bringing together a table of public health authorities, municipalities, frontline social service agencies, corporate partners, and many others. In the same way we worked together with our communities to support Syrian refugees, to recover after the 2018 tornadoes, and to rebuild after the 2019 floods, we are again working diligently to support the most vulnerable through this unparalleled event.

We are approaching the two month mark of physical distancing. As a result, many in-person mental health and addictions services have had to close their doors, or pivot to virtual models that may not serve the needs of their clients in the same way as before.

Michael Allen

By Michael Allen
President and CEO,
United Way East Ontario

Without their traditional models of support—like group therapy or face-to-face counselling—people who live with addictions and mental heath needs are more at risk of withdrawal, self harm, or even suicide.

This week, our table met again to hear from representatives from the Champlain Mental Health Network, including Deirdre Speers of Family Services of Ottawa, as well as John Hoyles of 211 – Community Information Centre of Ottawa, Charles Laframboise of Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region, Michael Maidment of Ottawa Food Bank, and Greg Lubimiv of the Phoenix Centre for Children and Families

These leaders shared the unique challenges people with addictions and mental health challenges are facing, and how we can work together to find creative solutions to those problems. 

This week’s meeting had the added support from municipal, provincial and federal elected officials, including Michael Tibollo, Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions for Ontario, Marie France Lalonde, Member of Parliament for Orléans; Jeremy Roberts, Member of Provincial Parliament for Ottawa West—Nepean and Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Children, Community and Social Services; and Laura Dudas, Ottawa City Councillor for Innes Ward and Deputy Mayor. These officials have pledged to support the table’s work, provide resources where appropriate, and elevate issues to the proper government channels to better address them. 

Needs are complex, and multi-faceted

Our mental health, just like our physical health, can take a turn for the worse at any point in time. Just like recovering from a virus, dealing with mental illness takes time, care, and individualized support. 

The current compounding pressures of employment and food insecurity, supporting school-aged children with online learning, and caring for vulnerable senior family members are some of the challenges that have emerged as even more vital over the past two months.

Factor in a battle with substance use or mental health challenges while isolated, alone, and separated from normal coping mechanisms, and we get a better understanding of why our mental health and recovery services are so essential in these precarious times. 

Even though many organizations have pivoted to online and remote services, this doesn’t work for everyone: many people don’t have the privilege of privacy in the home, making it hard for them to access professional support that is discreet and confidential. Additionally, people living in poverty and seniors lack technology that can connect them with support. 

Leaders of mental health organizations expect to see the mental health landscape worsen as time passes. 

Mental health is health

Charles Laframboise of the Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region notes that in the initial phase of the Distress Centre’s COVID-19 response, while the outbreak brought fear and uncertainty, callers were seeking information and referrals to appropriate agencies. 

As our communities have learned to adjust to this “new normal”, Charles has seen that callers are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with constant messaging around COVID-19 in the news cycle, on social media, and in any and most conversations we have with one another, leading to increased anxiety and stress. Our community’s mental health is under increasing pressure as time passes. 

The Ottawa Food Bank has seen a 528 per cent year-over-year increase in people reaching out in need of food, indicating that basic needs pressures are likely having an impact on mental health. John Hoyles also noted that 211 has seen a 55 per cent increase in the number of people reaching out to their helpline between February and April. 

As weeks pass, people’s needs are becoming more complex—they are becoming more stressed, and they are often calling to seek help for multiple issues. 

Wait lists for mental health services are long and growing, and the “return to normal” will see a second wave of people in need. With growing numbers of people suffering from the mental tolls of COVID-19, we need to find solutions so no one falls through the cracks. 

Rallying together

Our communities work best when they work together. In these times of community crisis, we have seen local love shared all across the region.

“There is a part for us to play in the mental health care [sector] to look for solutions to ensure that we’re able to provide the supports that individuals need to continue functioning. Mental health is health, and you can’t be healthy if you don’t have mental health.”

  • The Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions for Ontario, Michael Tibollo, joined our community roundtable this week to discuss the great work that has, and continues to take place across the province. From phone help lines that are providing support and coping mechanisms, to the Mindability program—a structured cognitive behavioural therapy program from the Government of Ontario to support those with depression and anxiety—there are services in place to map our path to wellness. 
  • Similarly, the Champlain Mental Health Network—which consists of more than 50 agencies that discuss needs, gaps, services, and collaborative responses—are working together to ensure that frontline support for addiction and treatment services is not interrupted. 
  • The Mental Health Network also created a website that acts as a centralized repository of information for members within the network. The Network has made strides in working with the Distress Centre to book direct appointments with high-risk clients and counsellors to get them fast and efficient support. 
  • By connecting with the Children’s Aid Society, the Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region is also developing a community strategy in an effort to reach parents and caregivers struggling with their mental health or substance abuse issues. With a 24/7 helpline offered in both official languages, parents and caregivers will be encouraged to reach out when and if they need support. 
  • The Distress Centre also offers a telephone wellness check service offered to patients who have recently been discharged following a visit to the hospital for a mental health emergency. This service ensures patients are functioning well, made the necessary connections with community resources or informal support networks, and are following discharge plans from their medical professional.
  • Acknowledging the unique mental health challenges immigrants and refugees are facing through COVID-19, the Ottawa Local Immigration Partnership (OLIP) has brought together a network of mental health and newcomer-serving organizations to address those specific health needs. Our partners recognize the need to tailor services to particular groups in order to support their lived experiences in relation to their mental health. 
  • The City of Ottawa has allocated $3 million for homelessness service providers and community agencies that provide essential services for at-risk residents. These organizations support the Indigenous community, isolated seniors, mental health, food security, day programs, community houses, community hubs, residential services homes, supportive housing and emergency shelters.

Our community is in crisis, and will be for some time. People are losing their mental stamina, and are not sure where to turn for support. The mental health challenges we’re seeing are great, diverse, and amplified by other disruptions in our lives. 

Fortunately, with so many engaged partners who are laser-focused on a common goal, we are able to respond quickly to the needs as we identify them. Right now, there are members of our communities who live with addictions and mental health struggles who need support to get through the effects of COVID-19. It is our goal that they come out of this pandemic even stronger. 

Things are financially difficult for so many people. But, when we work together, we can use our resources creatively and effectively to address the most pressing needs. 

This is our mission.

In early March, in partnership with Ottawa Public Health and dozens of organizations across the community sector, United Way launched an initiative to help support the most vulnerable in response to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) affecting our region. This collaboration has enabled local problem solving, prioritization of needs, and collaboration. To learn more about supporting the initiative, or if you require community service assistance, please visit




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